Sunday, March 30, 2008
Deja-vu all over again!
What was supposed to be a one to two inch snow changing to rain with higher temperatures that would wash it all away, changed, on Friday, into a five to eight inch heavy, damp snow that shoveled like cement and seemed unending. I am so tired of this winter!
Fortunately, it all began in the wee small hours, because Thursday we had to spend most of the day in Boston, partly on business for me, and partly to see a new Terrence McNally play, “Some Men.”
I measured the stage and hanging pipes of the Massachusetts College of Art theater for the opera production in May, and then inventoried the light hang and platform stock backstage. From there, we headed over to MIT where I put a reserve on all the furniture, props and portable lighting trees that I’ll need.
I enjoy checking back with my former colleagues. We were friends as well as co-workers and we made a very tight ensemble. And after I’ve talked with them and caught up on the latest, I’m very happy to leave it all behind. I don’t have any pangs about having “changed careers” and lifestyle, because I’m as busy as ever and enjoying it all immensely.
I don’t know the political columnist Maureen Dowd but the following two letters were sent to the NY Times in answer to a somewhat bizarre comparison she seems to have made between the elegant, multi-talented Gene Kelly (“Singing in the Rain,” among many, many other starring roles) and Bozo.
New York Times - March 19, 2008
LETTERS; I Knew Gene Kelly. The President Is No Gene Kelly.
To the Editor:
Re ''Soft Shoe in Hard Times'' (column, March 16):
Surely it must have been a slip for Maureen Dowd to align the artistry of my late husband, Gene Kelly, with the president's clumsy performances. To suggest that ''George Bush has turned into Gene Kelly'' represents not only an implausible transformation but a considerable slight. If Gene were in a grave, he would have turned over in it.
When Gene was compared to the grace and agility of Jack Dempsey, Wayne Gretzky and Willie Mays, he was delighted. But to be linked with a clunker -- particularly one he would consider inept and demoralizing -- would have sent him reeling.
Graduated with a degree in economics from Pitt, Gene was not only a gifted dancer, director and choreographer, he was also a most civilized man. He spoke multiple languages; wrote poetry; studied history; understood the projections of Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. He did the Sunday Times crossword in ink. Exceedingly articulate, Gene often conveyed more through movement than others manage with words.
Sadly, President Bush fails to communicate meaningfully with either. For George Bush to become Gene Kelly would require impossible leaps in creativity, erudition and humility.
Patricia Ward Kelly
Los Angeles, March 16, 2008
To the Editor:
Maureen Dowd wonders how it is possible that George W. Bush can continue to put a positive spin on various dismal facts associated with his administration.
The answer is simple: from the beginning of his tenure, he was, continues to be and always will be the most incompetent president in modern American history.
Alan A. Preti
Fort Washington, Pa., March 17, 2008
This meme appeared on at least two blogs and I decided to have a go at it--surprise, huh? Most of you know that I can't resist theses things (actually, I have resisted several but love them in general):
The house I grew up in…was a two and a half room apartment on West 72nd Street in Manhattan until I was four, and a cramped, boxy four room apartment in a housing project in Queens that was about as inviting as an underground bunker. It was a disastrous move for my family on several levels, and I couldn’t wait to get out of it.
When I was a child I wanted to be…a carpenter or a painter (art, not house). I became a theatrical designer, uniting both skills and many more besides.
The moment that changed me forever…Coming out to myself and taking complete control of my life in 1980.
My greatest inspiration… the arts: fine, performing, industrial, architectural, popular—all of them.
My real-life villain… Hmmmm—probably the Catholic Church but, in reality, any person or institution that promotes hate, divisiveness, and bigotry. Oh yeah-and George W. Bush.
If I could change one thing about myself…I’d be taller and have a narrower pelvis. I was born with birthing hips and never been happy with them.
At night I dream of… very frequently, enormous, very complex buildings through which I wander having many different encounters and adventures, but which I can never seem to get out of. I also dream of having good sex with a lot of men.
What I see when I look in the mirror… somebody I’ve gradually, but successfully, come to like over the years.
My style icon… probably Frank Lloyd Wright. He created a totally American style of architecture from a fusion Japanese style with a stylized take on American landscape, refined it to a state of elegant simplicity, and managed to build an extensive body of work playing with endless variations of it in a great many contexts. His work is honored in the design of my new house.
My favorite item of clothing…vests. Vests of all kinds and many different materials from leather to silk tapestry and Chinese quilting, just so long they’re interesting and don’t look like what everybody else is wearing. Of course, the very fact that they’re vests gives me a leg up on that last one.
I wish I’d never worn…hats. Hats of almost any kind.
It’s not fashionable but I like…ethnic clothing.
You wouldn’t know it but I’m very good at…being patient.
You may not know it but I’m no good at…dancing or anything that requires a lot of physical coordination. I’m a klutz and not very graceful. I don’t think I’ve ever had a total grasp on where my body is in space. This is a gross motor problem; interestingly, I have very strong fine motor skills in model making, drafting and precise work.
All my money goes on… life and experiences rather than things, particularly flashy electronics. My TVs and sound system are all around twenty years old, or more, and work just fine. I don’t feel any urgency to get flat panel TVs, 150 thousand song iPods or high definition everything—why throw out something that’s working well? The culture of disposable everything is destroying our environment.
But show me an exotic place to go, or a performance of something I’ve never seen on a stage before, and I’m out the door.
If I have time to myself…I read obsessively and spend time with my husband and cat.
I drive/ride… a 1999 Jeep Cherokee with 176,000 miles on it. It’s also working very well.
My house/flat is… nearing completion rapidly and I can’t wait!
My most valuable possession is... my health.
My favorite building(s)… The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. I taught the design, engineering, cultural significance, and decorative arts of this incredible structure to my design students every year.
Also: the festival theater at Bayreuth, Germany and the Cathedral at Laon, France, the only one of the great medieval cathedrals that actually built all seven towers that they were supposed to have to resemble “The City of God.” Five were completed and the other two were finished up to the top of the nave.
Another reason I love Laon is the amazing story of its construction. The town stands on a high mesa off in the plains east of Paris. The entire community and many teams of oxen had to haul tons of cut and dressed stone up to the heights on a daily basis for decades to construct the cathedral. Because at least five towers soar above the roof line of the nave, Laon has a profile unlike any other cathedral in Europe.
Movie heaven…no explosions, gratuitous violence, or sell-out “feel-good” endings. Mostly foreign and indie films. I’ve come to believe that Hollywood is the most toxic kind of whore.
A book that changed me… several books I read on history as a child that exposed the lies we were being taught in Catholic school. The most influential was probably C.W. Ceram’s “Gods, Graves and Scholars” that opened my eyes to the fact that the murder of vast numbers of Inca and Aztec native Americans and the ruthless destruction of their culture wasn’t “God’s work” but genocide and a crime against humanity. Ever thereafter, I haven’t been able to stomach the whole concept of Missionaries
My favorite work of art… There are so many! If I absolutely had to name one, it would be the great bronze statue of Poseidon in the National museum in Athens, Greece
The last album I bought/downloaded… “I Quatro Rusteghi” by Italian-German composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, based on a Venetian commedia dell’arte by Carlo Goldoni.
The person who really makes me laugh… the boys on the new sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”
The shop I can’t walk past… any antique shop.
The best invention ever… books.
In ten years time, I hope to be… doing good art in the studio of the new house and taking a break every afternoon around three o’clock for tea with Fritz.
My greatest regret… that I didn’t have the guts to come out eons earlier. But we all do it when we can and how we can, so I've stopped beating myself up about it.
My life in seven words or less… is where I want it to be.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Among the good fall-out from this bumper crop is that he got out his book of maple recipes and turned out a really wonderful butternut squash maple pie topped with walnuts. We’ll be exploring a lot more maple recipes in the coming months.
A somewhat ominous sign of spring: as I was skimming foam off the sap in the evaporator yesterday, the first wasp of the year landed on the wood stacked by the boiler--can the black flies and mosquitoes be far behind?
A friend of Fritz’s office manager sent her some info on a site called Pampered Chefs, a kitchen gear site. She thoughtfully attached these recipes, tastefully illustrated with photos inspired by the TV show The Naked Chef. These are from some magazine article or other and don’t seem to enlarge when clicked, so you might not be able to read the recipes. But that might not be an issue under the circumstances.
It turns out that there’s a lot of collateral visual material inspired by the show, including a twelve month calendar featuring naked male chefs—click on the images button and google “naked chef” for more.
My recent trip to New York took me to two interesting productions, and some very fine performances.
The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes was directed by John Doyle, an Englishman who’s become famous here for his Stephen Sondheim productions (Company, Sweeney Todd), in which the actors play instruments, becoming their own orchestra in the process. This production appears to be his operatic debut.
As it happens, Doyle lives in a seaside fishing village much like the one that’s the setting for Britten’s opera. The heavily weathered wooden equipment shacks that line the shore inspired the set, expanded into high walls that defined cramped, claustrophobic spaces. Doyle chose to focus on the gossip-filled, judgmental qualities of village life, using the many doors and windows in the wooden walls to isolate villagers as they observe and comment on the alienated, social outcast Grimes; wags immediately dubbed the set the Met’s Advent Calendar.
I felt that the concept worked well, particularly because Doyle’s character work with the excellent cast was so strong (however, instruments remained in the Met’s pit, in the hands of its superb orchestra). Doyle clearly knows these people—the young, widowed school teacher with hopes for reintroducing Grimes into mainstream society; the blunt, realistic retired ship’s captain who knows Grimes will never fit in; pub-keeper “Auntie” whose unrelated “nieces” can be had for a price; Mrs. Sedley who’s addicted to laudanum (an opiate once commonly given during childbirth) that the dapper apothecary is only too happy to supply when he isn’t visiting one, the other, or both nieces simultaneously.
But one element was missing in this staging—the sea. Other than Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, I don’t know of any opera more saturated with the sea than Peter Grimes. It’s everywhere in the score and in the lives of its characters, but it’s nowhere in Doyle’s production. Even in the first act when Grimes is trying to get his boat pulled up on the beach and nobody but Captain Balstrode will help him, the two men simply walked downstage and sang the lines about the work with no boat, no rope, no action. Successful as it was at creating the stifling, closed community of Britten’s first great operatic success, Doyle’s production looked relentlessly inland rather than to the sea that’s actually one of the leading characters in the work.
Musically and vocally, the performance left virtually nothing to be desired. Young American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey (above) possessed the power, both vocally and physically, to be a fine Grimes. Add an aching vulnerability and the ability to make a character both fearsome and sympathetic simultaneously, and critical response that this his is a major characterization is well justified. Patricia Racette as teacher Ellen Orford was luminous vocally. The MET’s chorus, revitalized from a decade or more of decline by new chorus master Donald Palumbo, sang really gloriously.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
In the process, we’ve been very busy buying things, checking on the work constantly, making lists of things that need to be finished, redone or fixed in some way. Today we’re going to finish painting the exercise room because its floor—the last remaining floor in the house to be laid—is going down on Tuesday so we have to finish the room today so that the concrete floor can be scraped and thoroughly cleaned in preparation.
The floor that’s going in is called ReTire, made from recycled car and truck tires. We’ve picked a 6mm thick version that’s deep enough to make a nice, resilient floor to exercise on but also thin enough to allow the warmth from the in-slab radiant heating to operate properly.
In the middle of all this, Fritz was hit on the forehead by a big television set on the top of a tall audio-visual cart. He was beginning to pull the cart forward when the TV rocked forward, hit his head and pushed his head backward. There was some swelling and discomfort that he iced at intervals but eventually concern from his office manager and me lead to a trip into the doctor, an x-ray, and the good news that there were no fractured vertebrae or displaced discs, although a small bone spur had separated—which isn’t considered a problem. He’s in a soft cervical collar but otherwise OK and in good spirits.
Well, I underestimated—our first boiling of maple syrup yielded a full three gallons that are now stored in a variety of quart, pint and pint and a half mason jars. The second and final boiling is going on now. We took the final 24 gallons of sap from the trees yesterday, then fritz went from tree to tree, pulled the metal taps and plugged the holes with pegs cut from thin branches. As of this morning, only 16 gallons of sap remain to be added to the evaporator, which I got going for the day about 8 AM. With luck, we’ll have all 16 added into the evaporator and the final result reduced to half its capacity.
The process then is to drain the evaporator into two big pots, boil it down further to its final thickness on the home stove, then filter and jar it. We make what I call a “country syrup,” one that’s free of debris and most fibrous residue, but not filtered through felt like commercial maple syrup--which is NOT, by the way, Vermont Maid or Mrs. Butterworth’s. They’re corn syrup flavored artificially or with the sludge left over from production of the real stuff. Real maple syrup has a very different taste and consistency.
Right now it looks like we’ll get another three gallons put up tomorrow. We could do more because the trees are flowing freely, but we don’t have any more canning jars or time. Richard (for Tornwordo) left a comment calling into question jusgt how labor-intensive sugaring is. Well, there’s constant gathering of the buckets and bringing them down to the boiler. There’s gathering a small mountain of wood from the forest and cutting it into stove length.
The boiler has to be kept going as long as possible each day from early morning to very late night. If it is, we can boil off 25 to 30 gallons a day (we collected approximately 285 gallons this year). The boiling sap has to be skimmed regularly to remove the thick, spongy foam that forms on it like an insulating blanket and prevents the water from going off as steam. The fire has to be fed every hour to hour and a half at the most, and the whole operation needs to be watched carefully as the syrup begins to thicken to prevent the moment when it suddenly takes off and boils over. If that happens, you lose up to a whole week if time and labor.
There’s a reason the [real] stuff costs up to $20 for a relatively small bottle in the store.
Last Friday night, we connected with the small theater scene here in southern New Hampshire. Our point of entry was a production of Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?: notes toward a definition of tragedy. It’s one of the wonderful plays (Tony Award for Best Play, 2003) that have come from the highly productive Indian Summer of Albee’s career. The production was in Portsmouth by The Generic Theater, in collaboration with The Player’s Ring that produces its own material (predominantly new scripts by regional playwrights) and provides a venue for other companies.
Player’s Ring operates out of a simple old New England brick building (we estimate it’s first quarter for the 19th century) by the waterfront park just opposite the entrance to Strawbery Banke, the old (17th, 18th century) historic district of Portsmouth. The theater seats 66 people on simple stage carpenter-built risers around three sides of the acting area. The atmosphere is casual—the theater sells cookies, coffee and tea that the audience is encouraged to bring into the theater during the performance.
The Goat is a fascinating, demanding piece of material, one and a half hours without intermission and a contemporary version of the oldest surviving theatrical form—Greek tragedy. The title links the play to the Satyr plays (tragedy comes from the Greek “goat song.” Albee deconstructs love, desire and relationships in a play that is both tragic and wildly funny, building from the premise that a seemingly secure, wildly successful architect with a "perfect" marriage falls in love--and has sex with--a female goat named Sylvia.
The Generic’s four actors varied somewhat in skill but not in strong commitment and thoroughly professional performances. We’re interested now in seeing Equus, by Rolling Die Productions (a company with a lengthy and interesting history, including two films that were well received at indie film festivals), in late April, early May. I’ve investigated other companies allied with Player’s Ring and get the impression that the small theater scene here is both lively and worth getting to know.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
When I was running scenery construction shops, the common practice was to do a big end-of-day cleanup: sweeping the floors, putting all tools away, storing materials in their proper places, and taking the trash out to the dumpster. The construction and paint floors were left clear and clean for the start of the next workday. I wasn’t comfortable if every time I moved one of my feet something went crunch.
I’m also dividing all the scrap wood between the shorter bits to be used as kindling in the wood stoves and for boiling down the maple sap, and the longer lengths that I can salvage to build the workbenches in my studio. I should have just enough for the studio job; there’s probably about three years worth of kindling coming off that hill.
I left a comment on Alex’s blog The Great Cock Hunt last Friday and got this as the verification code: vkrak. It seemed appropriate somehow.
The kitchen counters were being installed this morning. They’re Silestone, very attractive in a rich, warm, creamy brown with crushed bits of granite and other stone captured in resin. However only half got put in because the general contractor had neglected to do the final work of leveling the area around the soapstone sink, and hadn’t constructed a strong enough support for the counter over the area in which the dishwasher is to be installed.
So, another delay, although a short one I think. Otherwise more finish carpentry is being done and hardware is going onto doors. It’s getting closer and closer.
Fritz and I are processing maple sap as fast as we can. This is a bumper crop year. I think we’ve taken 150 to 160 gallons from the trees and they’re not slowing down.
Last night we got out two very big stock pot/spaghetti boiling pots and drained the evaporator of several gallons of proto-syrup. It has to be reduced further on the kitchen stove, then strained and put into jars. We couldn’t keep reducing it in the evaporator because we had another 65 or so gallons ready to start boiling down and no place to put what was coming relentlessly from the trees.
I’m hauling fallen branches and trees out of the woods to cut and feed into the boiler. If you try to make a business out of it, maple syrup isn’t a good one. It’s very labor-intensive and the cost of wood by the cord in today’s market would cut steeply into any profits. Fortunately we have piles of 2x4, x6, x8, x10 and x12 scrap from the house construction to feed the fire and as much hard wood as we can pull out of the woods. I have no idea yet of our total production, but four gallons wouldn’t surprise me—maybe more.
Friday, March 14, 2008
The first crocus of spring in the wintery Northeast
The snow pack is melting and the maple sap is actually flowing faster than we can boil it down. It's also the beginning of mud season--a couple of vehicles, mine included, almost got mired in the stuff up at the construction site on Wednesday.
Things are racing towards completion now. The flooring on the second floor is installed and all that's necessary for the entire second floor to be complete is some baseboards, hooking up one hanging lantern, and a bit of plumbing.
Downstairs, the only floor left to be done is in the exercise room. The material for it, made from recycled car and truck tires, is called ReTire and is a special order item now. Eventually, I hope it will be standard flooring, in stock everywhere. Below is the kitchen floor as it was this afternoon, still in the process. I designed the simple layout specifically to pull together the two separate areas of the kitchen, the food preparation area in front and the little dining area in back.
This morning could have been completely chaotic, but some careful preparation on our part and well organized, careful work by the participants made it all work. Gentle Giant Movers came to take all the furniture that came up from my house in Boston and move it up to the house from Fritz's barn. Anything for my studio and the guest room on the second floor was able to go right upstairs, but all the downstairs furniture was stacked in the great room until the individual rooms there are ready to move into.
My history with Gentle Giant has been extremely happy--great guys, efficient, friendly, fun to work with, and in my experience, pretty good to look at as well. The crew today was no exception and they did the job in two thirds of the time estimated.
While they were getting things into the house, Sears arrived with all the appliances to be stored in the mechanical room until the floors have cured in the kitchen and laundry rooms.
And through it all, the flooring guys were working away, needing a constant warm atmosphere so the marmoleum, an eco-friendly non-petroleum-based product, would remain ideally flexible for installation. This meant no doors left conveniently open to the early morning chill, so I stationed myself in the entry area, opening and closing the front door for every piece of furniture, but also able to give directions as to where each one was to go.
Here are the latest pictures:
The big chandelier, nestled in the V of the great room trusses. It will be front and center in the south-facing windows for people walking or driving up the hill to the house.
The entry hall chandelier and beyond it, the antique Chinese lantern that is to hang over a round table in the corner of our bedroom.
A look into the sauna at dusk. It's entirely sheathed in cedar and smells incredible.
Yesterday evening we were finally able to turn on the outside lights. One or two bulbs hadn't yet been installed, but this gives an idea. Front door to the right; the door to the mechanical room (ie. "the back door") is on the left.
I'm off to New York City early Saturday morning. I'm going to a matinee of Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" at the Metropolitan Opera, and an evening performance of Purcell's "King Arthur" in director/choreographer Mark Morris's new production at the New York City Opera.
As I'm on my way back on Sunday, I stop in Boston for design meetings with the directors of the operas on the double bill that the Intermezzo Chamber Opera is producing in mid-May.
Have a lovely weekend, and I'll be back on Monday.
Monday, March 10, 2008
In line with the new style being adopted by many younger classical musicians, they dropped formalwear in favor of simple, casual black slacks and black silk shirts open at the neck. It’s an approach I’ve always thought made great sense, instead of having musicians engaged in a physically demanding activity trussed up in uncomfortable, hot garments in a style memorializing Queen Victoria’s perpetual mourning for her husband, Prince Albert.
The program consisted of four major works:
Giovanni Tartini’s Sonata for violin & continuo in G minor, “The Devil’s Trill”
Sergei Prokofiev’s violin Sonata #1
Antonin Dvorak’s Four Romantic Pieces for violin & piano, opus 75
Edvard Grieg’s Sonata #3 for violin & piano, opus 45
The two encores were
Fauré’s “Apres une reve”, arranged by Joshua Bell
Prokofiev’s March from “The Love for Three Oranges”, arranged by Jasha Heifitz
It was a demanding program technically but provided no obstacles for Bell, who had everything, from the elegance required by the Tartini to the raw power and stamina essential for the Prokofiev sonata.
Jeremy Denk (on the left) was an uncommonly interesting accompanist—in fact a rising soloist who came into the partnership more or less as an equal. He’s established strong partnerships with a large number of contemporary composers, spanning styles and generations from Ned Rorem and Elliot Carter to Jake Heggie, Tobias Picker, and Thomas Adès among others—many of them out gay composers who are redefining contemporary classical
music’s style and agendas.
Denk’s program bio devoted a great deal of space to his blog, “Think Denk”, quoting lavish praise for his knowledge and wit. The URL is http://thinkdenk.net.
The boiler/evaporator’s going and the sap’s flowing pretty well. We’ve had a couple of thirty gallon days but today was a five gallon day—it all depends on the temperature split between nightly freezes and daily temperatures between 32 and 40 degrees.
We’re going to be pulling logs from one of our piles of trees cut down to clear the house site, cutting them into firewood to keep the evaporator going. It eats quite a bit of wood in the long, slow process of reducing 40 gallons of sap into one gallon of syrup. It’s been a cold, hard winter here and we’ve gone through three quarters of our firewood already, so it’s fortunate that we have a supply of seasoned wood ready to go.
A very busy week has begun up at the house. The company supplying our kitchen counters came this morning to assemble wood templates for each segment of counter. Because everything has to be in place exactly as it will be in the finished kitchen, that meant lifting the big soapstone sink from the rolling dolley onto its base between a bank of cabinets and the space reserved for the dishwasher. Its estimated weight is 400 pounds, but with four of us pressed into service (including our saleswoman from the tile and counter company, on the left), it proved surprisingly easy to do.
The "Frank Lloyd Wright" door that was my gift from MIT, now hung in the entrance door to the great room. On the right is the deep raspberry accent wall in the master bedrioom.
Later in the day, the glass guy came by for us to pick out our shower doors. Flooring starts to go down in the two big upstairs rooms tomorrow. Plumbing is ongoing. Gentle Giant Movers takes all my furniture from Boston, now stored in the barn, hauls it up the hill and stacks it in the great room on Thursday. The appliances from Sears are delivered on Friday. It’s all beginning to speed by faster and faster—it’s actually going to be finished and livable in the not too distant future!
Thursday, March 06, 2008
Fritz and I visited IKEA again today in Stoughton, south of Boston. We’d bought one pair of cabinet handles too many, and two packages of drawer knobs too few. We also bought two veneer panels matching our cabinet wood color for use in facing the base of the soapstone sink. After lunch and picking up a towel rack and other accessories for the upstairs bathroom, we headed to the food store.
We love IKEA food. It’s also incredibly reasonable in price. Since Stoughton is too far for regular shopping, we always stock up (and we’re waiting for the construction and opening of the proposed IKEA just north of Boston in Somerville—do any of the Boston bloggers know if there’s been any progress?).
We came away with six packages of Swedish rye bread mix, three of lingonberry bread mix, six packages of rye cracker bread, a bag of Swedish meatballs with three packages of the cream sauce mix, jars of gooseberry and cloudberry jam, a three pound plus tub of lingonberry jam and a marzipan “princess cake,” all for just $87.
Fritz began tapping his maple trees this week (seen here in sunset light). The conditions were just right: cold nights and days warming into the mid to upper 40s. The big maples, over a hundred years old, stand between the developed parts of the property and the woods, and are pumping sap freely.
We emptied the five gallon gatherting pails this morning, pouring the take into big plastic barrels. Nine hours later, back from our trip, we gathered thirty gallons more. Tomorrow we’ll set up the boiler and start making maple syrup.
Giuseppe di Stefano, one of opera’s great cases of “what might have been” died this week at age 86.
He was a Sicilian lyric tenor as lavishly gifted with looks, personality and voice as anyone has ever been. He was headed for the priesthood but an inability to resist any even remotely available woman put an end to that. He drank, he had a passion for flashy cars and speedboats, he smoked powerful little Italian cigars, he gambled and partied all night--and for about eight years he sang like an angel. Then the lifestyle and some seriously destructive choices of roles to sing wore the velvet from his voice and robbed him of his golden high notes.
He’d always been a little irresponsible, often dodging rehearsals and sometimes not showing up for performances. But he got by on his reputation as a great guy, charming, a good colleague, someone everybody loved. Even Rudolf (“underneath this cold exterior beats a heart of stone”) Bing, the dictatorial general manager of the Metropolitan for more than two decades, was stunned at di Stefano’s gifts. Bing “exiled” him from the MET for three years at one point and eventually dropped him from the company entirely, but said that di DStefano’s career could have been one to be mentioned in the same breath as that of the legendary Enrico Caruso--if only he could have controlled his many appetites.
The NY Times obituary flat out stated that he and Maria Callas had been lovers for many years without giving any documentation. It isn’t information I’ve read in any other source. About the only time this could have occurred was during her marriage to the much older Italian industrialist who supported and managed her early career.
Di Stefano’s voice began a downward spiral in the late fifties and was pretty much shot eight or so years later while he was still in his 40s and should have been at the peak of his career. His earliest recordings from the mid 1940s reveal a voice of almost unbelievable beauty, clarity, flexibility and technical control; those from his late career offer only hints of the original beauty amid glaringly loud, raw and technically crude assaults on high notes and attempts to sing softly.
In the 70s he convinced Maria Callas to go on a world tour with him, giving recitals rather than staged opera performances, revisiting the music of their celebrated on-stage partnership. Both were at the end of their ropes vocally, he changed the programs constantly-- sometimes without consulting or even informing her—and reviews were poisonous. They called it off before completing the tour. It was a sad way to close two prominent and distinguished careers, and they parted company unhappily
Di Stefano was quite wealthy from singing fees and recording royalties, and had built a vacation retreat for his family in Kenya, a country he and his wife loved. In 2003, he was violently attacked, possibly in a robbery attempt, by two Kenyans, and suffered serious head injuries. Evacuated to Italy, he eventually came out of a coma, but was never the same again. His death was blamed on complications from the beating.
I never heard him live at any point in his career, which I deeply regret. Although lack of artistic discipline undermined the enormous gift he had been given, he had for a few magical years what a great many agree was the most beautiful tenor voice in the world.
Monday, March 03, 2008
Then we swept and vacuumed piles of sawdust. It’s everywhere, including clinging in a thin film to all the walls, the Aga, the cabinets, the window glass. But the house looks great, mostly clean and neat for the next round of subcontractor work. This week the electrician is back to install outlets, switches and to start hanging all the restored lighting fixtures. Being fully electrified will be a huge help—we now run everything from a box in the mechanical room underneath the circuit breaker box with extension cords all over the floors. The tile work is being grouted as I write, and finish carpentry resumes Tuesday.
Sunday, after Quaker Meeting, we stopped off at Lowe’s for another roll of cheap construction paper to restore the covering over the acid dyed floors. The original paper had gotten torn and needed to be covered over in high traffic areas. After that we installed all the handles and knobs on the new kitchen cabinets, getting us that much closer to moving in.
I was on the road a lot last week. On Wednesday I drove down to New York City via New London, CT to pick up a friend and Meriden, CT to get a friend of his. We were on our way to one of the Opera Orchestra of New York’s semi-staged concert presentations at Carnegie Hall, Vincenzo Bellini’s La Sonnambula.
Italian opera of the early 19th century wasn’t overly concerned with logic in their plots. Their texts existed to set up a series of dramatic situations that explored a variety of raw emotional states in which the audience could lose themselves: hopeless love, betrayal, revenge, intense romance and—above all—mental instability and insanity. The Romantic Age had rejected the classical balance and logic of the 18th century and lived right out on the edge.
Based on a highly successful Romantic ballet, La Sonnambula takes place in a Tyrolean village and deals with sleepwalking, a little-understood aberration at the time that lands the heroine in a heap of trouble. On the eve of her wedding to a local farmer, Amina sleepwalks into the bedroom of a nobleman (paging Dr. Freud!) and is discovered there by the villagers, who immediately assume the worst. Her fiancé takes back his ring and she sinks into a depression.
The nobleman’s attempts to explain sleepwalking are dismissed and the situation is saved only by Amina’s appearance on the roof of the local mill, clearly in an altered state and in great danger of falling to her death. Breaths are held and a hauntingly mournful aria is sung. She makes her way perilously but safely to the ground, is gently awakened by her mother and friends, is reconciled to her intended, and all ends happily.
It was a lovely performance, dominated by Cuban soprano Eglise Guttierez and Russian tenor Dimitri Korchak, both of whom have assimilated the period style and possess excellent voices used with great intelligence and sensitivity. The stage director was Ira Siff, aka Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh, legendary drag diva of the much missed La Grand Scena Opera.
On Friday we headed northwest to the little town of Randolph, Vermont and the shop/museum of music box builder/restorer Dwight Porter.
We’re not talking about little boxes that sit on a vanity and play “Moon River” here but big mechanical devices that have multiple chime and bell arrays and that play lengthy classical, religious, folk, or popular material via large metal discs punched out like the earliest computer cards. These precision, clockwork-driven instruments can cost into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and have attracted an amazing group of people to Porter’s shop, including Bjork who features a two disc model set into a stunning clear Lucite table case in some of her concerts. Its twin is on exhibit in Porter’s museum.
The occasion was picking up a chime unit that fits into an antique grandfather clock that came down through Fritz’s family to his younger sister who lives in Cambridge, MA. The unit had broken down over the years and been slightly damaged by an inept attempt to get it running again. In addition to the regular hour chime, the clock is meant to play one of six selections from a disc on the hour. The day was beautiful, right between snowstorms. The mountain/valley vistas were spectacular up through the Connecticut River Valley and into central Vermont.
After we did our business and learned about some of the highly complex restoration projects in the shop, Mr. Porter opened up the museum, normally closed for the winter, and gave us an hour tour and demonstration of some of his treasures. These included automatic entertainment devices dating back to the 18th century in some cases.
One automated diorama under a glass dome featured a ship in full sail being gently tossed by the waves of a blue fabric sea while a windmill on a cliff turned and a song played. In another, ballerinas pirouetted on point. A two and a half foot tall Parisian lady, magnificently dressed in high belle époque style from the era when she was made, played a harp--the key to wind her up sticking incongruously out of her right hip.
Visit Dwight Porter’s site and view many of his pieces (the lucite music box like Bjork’s, unfortunately, isn’t shown as he hasn’t yet found the right way to light it for maximum effect) at www.portermusicboxmuseum.com
I arrived in New London Wednesday earlier than expected, so I stopped at a big antique place downtown and found a wonderful pair of cast iron brackets. I had a marble-topped shelf in my front hall in Boston supported by two wooden brackets that were firmly attached to wall and so I only took my marble piece with me. When I saw these exotic bird brackets, I realized that they were perfect both for the new house and for the size of the marble piece. Crawling around antique places is one of my favorite activities.