Monday, March 22, 2010

In one of those landmark events that mark a real ending of an era, Wolfgang Wagner, younger grandson of the composer, has died at age 90.

In the wake of World War II in a Germany most of whose major theaters and opera houses had suffered damage or total destruction, the Festival opera theater that Richard Wagner had designed and built specifically to present his own works in the little town of Bayreuth stood undamaged.

There was no logic to this -- the town's railroad station and switching yard had been taken out by Allied bombs, and the composer's house had sustained a direct hit, being about half destroyed. The Festspielhaus stood alone and exposed on top of a hill just outside of town from the train station and was unmistakable from the air. The appropriation of Wagner's ideas and works by the Nazi's was both complete and well-known worldwide. The theater should have been a priority target. When the war ended, the American occupation command was left with the thorny problem of just what to do with one of Germany's foremost cultural icons.

The question of Richard Wagner's "complicity" in Nazi policy and the Final Solution is something of a red herring in that he died in 1883, five years before Adolph Hitler was born. His Nationalism was typical of many Europeans who grew up in the shadow of the great upheavals of the 19th century as the old monarchies were breaking down, and indepenent kingdoms, scattered principalities, duchies and occupied territories struggled to find a common identity with those others who shared a common language or ethnic origin. Italy's great composer Giuseppe Verdi was no less an Italian Nationalist than Wagner was a German one, but there was one extra component to Wagner's story.

Wagner was outspokenly antisemitic -- in company with half or more of his countrymen -- but less so than than many others. The problems came after his death with the managing of his legacy by two English ex-patriots.
The first, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, married one of the composer's daughters. An avowed Aryan supremacist, he became a Nazi Party hero as the movement's chief living philosopher, on whose death in 1927 the Party staged as close as possible to a State Funeral with full honors as they could manage without yet being in power.

More significantly, a young English girl named Winifred Williams lost both parents at age two and was passed around among relatives for the next four years. At age six, she was sent to live with German relatives, a staunchly Nationalistic older couple who were deeply involved with music, friends of the late Richard Wagner, and wholly involved in the Wagner mystique. If Dr. Frankenstein had been commissioned to construct a bride specifically for the composer's son and heir Sigfried Wagner, he couldn't possibly have produced anyone better suited than Winifred became under Karl and Henrietta Klindworth's loving care.

She was 17 and he 45 when
Siegfried and Winifred were brought together at the 1914 Festival. A year later they were married and between 1917 and 1920 she bore him four children. When he died in 1930, their two sons weren't within two decades of being able to inherit management of the Festival. Winifred elbowed her sisters-in-law out of the way and took command herself. She became an early supporter of Hitler (sending him food packages and, reputedly, the paper on which he was to write his manifesto, Mein Kampf while he was imprisoned) and a relatively early member of the Nazi Party. When Hitler came to power she sent congratulations and invited him to Bayreuth and to Wagner's house, which became a favorite retreat for him.

Hitler even proposed marriage, which was diplomatically refused because she was otherwise involved -- Winifred was not one to let the grass grow under her feet. However the Nazi government maintained close ties to Bayreuth by purchasing huge blocks of tickets to the Festival's summer season of performances to give to members of the armed forces for R&R. Winifred's older son Wieland was personally exempted from military service, as the heir to the Festival, by "Uncle Wolf", the family's nickname for Hitler. Younger son Wolfgang was conscripted, however, and experienced both action and wounds in the army. By this time, the family and the Festival (which were inextricably intertwined) were fully identified as well with the Third Reich and Nazi policy.

Relatively early in the war, as the boxcars began to roll to extermination camps, Winifred began receiving increasingly desperate letters from Jews, some musicians and others patrons of the Festival, and from friends and agents of Jews begging her to use her influence to obtain protection from the Final Solution. It is beyond question that she used this influence frequently, mostly by calling Joseph Goebbels personally to plead for special consideration based on whatever reason could be concocted that would gain an exemption. In fact, she called so often that Goebbels, in extreme annoyance, finally ordered that no further calls from Frau Wagner be patched through to him, and ordered an aide to deal with her in future.

When it was all over, the American forces ran a de-Nazification investigation on her which they found extremely frustrating. On the one hand, many Jews and their families testified to the kindness and daring of her interventions. There were also documents in her own hand to prove that as the war went on, she found what was happening to Europe's Jews to be unacceptable. But her personal loyalty to Hitler never wavered, to the point that she claimed he could not have ordered the Holocaust because he was such a gentle, cultured person. She acknowledged the horror stories people were telling her but repeated constantly that the monster of the atrocities wasn't the Adolph Hitler she knew personally.

The Americans finally threw their hands up in the air and said simply that she could never have anything to do with the Festival ever again. Her two sons were named to clean things up politically and to reopen it without any Nazi associations, which they did in 1951. Many claim that such a house cleaning never really happened and that many questionable connections remained.

Wieland and Wolfgang ran the festival together, apparently with much friction, from 1951 through Wieland's death in 1966 at age 49. During that time they directed every production themselves, revolutionizing the opera world's ideas of operatic scenery, costume and lighting by distancing the works from all previous pictorial styles and going deeply into abstraction and psychologically-driven acting. Wolfgang was the less visionary of the two but whatever their personal rivalries, they presented a united front to the world.

After Wieland died, Wolfgang kept on directing but opened the Festival up to avant-garde directors of all kinds, many from the Eastern Zone of Germany, who brought the latest, ultra-political and often Marxist-influenced ideas to bear on Wagner's operas. One was reminded that Wagner himself consorted with Marxist revolutionaries in Germany in the 1840s and was exiled for a while after the 1849 revolution for his association with them.

In his later years, Wolfgang became very difficult. He had long ago thrown his own son out of Bayreuth and "exiled" him and various nieces from the Festival grounds. His brother's daughter Nike Wagner commented memorably that growing up a Wagner was like being raised in the German branch of the House of Atreus. He named his second wife as heir to the Festival, but she died young and the mantle was designated to fall on his daughter by her, the controversial and cutting edge stage director Katherina Wagner.

Various town and government officials got into the act when family members mounted challenges, the accepted solution being that
Katherina and her 30-year older half-sister Eva would run the Festival jointly.

Wolfgang retired officially in 2008. His death paves the way for Katherina and Eva's promised and much anticipated opening of the family's private archives to scholarly scrutiny for the very first time in order to answer all questions, particularly those centering on the Bayreuth/Hitler association. There is suspicion that Wieland and Wolfgang destroyed a great deal of incriminating material, but if the Wagner women do follow through by making the family's history as transparent as possible, they will pave the way for a truly new New Bayreuth.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When I wake up in the morning, this was my first view of the new day for the last couple of weeks: sunrise right in the window opposite the foot of our bed. As the sun's arc moves steadily northward, sunrise now occurs in a different window, one made of textured glass block that glitters like diamonds when the first rays hit it.

The squirrel is purely sight-seeing -- all the squirrels in our woods have learned that it's futile to try to get into the seed feeder. It has a weight-sensitive platform that allows birds to graze among the seed but which dumps squirrels on the ground as soon as they touch it. One of them did retaliate the other morning by ripping the suet feeder off the trunk of the ash tree to which it was attached. That got them nowhere either as I had a lock on the thing so it couldn't be torn open. It's back now, secured by chains above and below and attached by 2" deck screws. We'll see how far they get with that arrangement.

The leaf-covered tree is a beech. They keep their leaves all winter and hearing the dry leaves rustle -- more like clicking together, really -- is a pretty sound in the winter wind.

Emerson College already pulled off a major theater restoration with the late 19th century Majestic Theater. It now has two to its credit. Last Friday night we drove to Boston for a performance during the opening week of the newly restored Paramount Theater, a 1932 art deco gem. Emerson (where I headed the scenic design department for five years in the 1970s) is using the Paramount as the centerpiece of a performance/rehearsal/residence complex on Washington Street close to the Opera House. Within its shell, there's been an exquisite restoration of the original interior:

as well as the development of a black box studio theater and rehearsal rooms. The occasion for us was a second visit to Boston by the New Zealand-based Black Grace Dance Company that had thrilled us the first time and didn't disappoint in any way on second exposure.

The company's philosophy is to honor the mixed racial and cultural heritage of New Zealand. Dancers are Maori, Samoan, and European-descended with all manner of mixes. Primarily an-all male company (the Boston Globe's reviewer commented on the company's accustomed highly virile style) there were guest female dancers in many of the pieces they performed, in some of which the men made the music of the dance with rhythmic body slapping, finger snapping, stomping and chants in the Polynesian dance tradition.

Potentially sad news from Portsmouth. The retro-funky Friendly Toast Restaurant (along with its descendant restaurant in Cambridge, MA near Harvard) may be forced to close due to insurmountable debt. We started eating there several years ago. The interior is a whimsically chaotic collage of art and artifacts from the 30s through 60s of the last century, with a major concentration of 1950s kitsch, that covers the walls and ceiling, invades the restrooms and threatens to spill over into the kitchen. Cooks and wait staff are all friendly alternative types, prices are gentle and the food both good and nicely varied.

The owners went out on a limb financially to open the branch in Cambridge and a series of unforeseen mishaps caused debt to balloon out of all proportion. The owners have gutted their savings but the banks have declined a loan and the future looks bleak.

After we'd gone to FT Portsmouth for the first time, I formed a mental block on the first word of the name. I knew it was some kind of adjective reflecting an emotional or relationship state, but couldn't remember which. So when Fritz and I talked about the place, it came out Impudent Toast, or Happy Toast, Pissed-off Toast, things like that. It was always a fun place to eat and we'll be sorry if it goes under.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Daniel Gundlach is a countertenor resident in New York City. Today he posted a link to this delightful and highly honored (Cannes Advertising Film Festival Grand Prix) 1992 European commercial.


This recipe for Moussaka originated in Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. It's one of the loveliest cookbooks I've seen thanks to beautiful full color food photography throughout. The name is something of a misnomer as her recipes originate from cuisines found a big arc around the Mediterranean from Morocco across North Africa to Egypt, north through the Levant, then east to Iraq and Iran, and north to Turkey and Greece.

Much as I admire certain books or recipes, I always do some adaptation to my own personal taste. Frequently that means reducing fat content and adjusting spice content, as here with the addition of the Moroccan spice mix Ras el-hanout and substitution of ground turkey for beef or lamb--with no sacrifice of flavor.


2 onions chopped or thinly sliced
Olive oil
1-1/2 pounds ground turkey
2 tsp cinnamon
1 Tbs Ras el-hanout or other Moroccan spice mix
5 large tomatoes, chopped
eggplants, 1-1/2 lbs total, unpeeled, cut crosswise in 1/3 inch slices
Options--1/2 cup chopped flat leaf parsley; 1/2 teaspoon chili-pepper flakes

Brush the eggplant slices with olive oil both sides, broil or grill until lightly browned, and line the bottom of a 10x14 inch baking dish with 1/2 of them.

Saute the onions in olive oil until golden, add the turkey and break up with a spatula, stirring until browned. Add spices, salt and pepper to taste, tomatoes and cook until the liquid has almost all gone off. Add the parsley if using, then mix and spread on top of the eggplant in the baking dish. Cover with the remaining eggplant. Keep warm.

Make a bechamel sauce:
Melt 4 Tbs. butter or margarine in a pan, whisk in 4 Tbs. flour gradually until blended. Gradually add 2-1/2 cups hot milk, stirring vigorously to prevent lumps forming (a whisk works very well) and heat until just boiling. Lower the flame and simmer until sauce thickens. Add salt, pepper and 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg. Beat two eggs lightly in a bowl. Add a bit of the sauce to warm the eggs, then pour them into the sauce pan, beating vigorously (a whisk works very well here). Turn heat off and immediately stir in 1/2 to 2/3 cup grated very sharp cheddar, stirring until the cheese is melted. Pour the sauce over the moussaka and bake at 400 degrees about 45 minutes or until browned a rich gold color.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

What American accent do you really have?
Your Result: Northeastern

Your accent is basically what people speak with around the Tri-State area (New York City, north Jersey, Connecticut) and Rhode Island. If New York City is the greatest city in the world, it's not too much of a stretch to say you have the greatest accent in the world!

Result Breakdown:
100% Northeastern
88% Mid-Atlantic
83% Northern
65% Midland
62% Northeast New England
57% Southern
38% North Central
38% Western
Quiz URL:

Well, they got it right -- I was raised first on West 72nd Street between Broadway and West End Avenue in New York City until I was four and a half years old, and then in Rego Park, Queens. When I got to College in Boston, the locals said the only trace I had of a New York accent was that I said SCALLops instead of SCOLLops. I suspect they thought with a Noo Yawk accent I'd be saying things like, "Hey, howya doon?"


Recent event in Great Britain, courtesy of BBC America: Prime Minister Gordon Brown who is fighting for his political life right now, and who is also being pommeled in the government's investigation of how the UK got suckered into the Iraq War, took time out to do something that, sadly, isn't possible here in the U.S. -- at least not yet:

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown thanked his nation's openly serving gay soldiers in a ceremony celebrating the contributions of LGBT people to Britain.

Brown told guests at 10 Downing Street, including a number of gay servicemembers, that there was a “debt of gratitude we can never fully repay”. He said that the pride they felt was “nothing compared to the pride we feel in them”. Mr Brown cited the current struggle in the US to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, saying he knew debate on the issue continued. In 2009, for the first LGBT reception at Downing Street, Mr Brown said that the ban on gay marriage in California was “unacceptable”.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the British military allowing out gay soldiers. Mr Brown said: “I promise you that no one need walk the road to equality alone again.” He also listed the achievements made for gay equality in the last ten years, such as gay adoption and fertility rights for lesbians, saying people had warned these things could not be done.


"It's movie line week here on Facebook. Copy and paste this to your status and in the comment box write your favorite line from a movie and see how many of your friends know the line and from which movie it came."

I don't always get in on these things, and this is one I let slip right by me. So here it is on the blog. I actually have a couple of favorite lines, but here's the one I'd like you to guess:

"Yonda lies da castle of my fadda."

There's a small catch in that I have heard this line and its delivery attributed to three different movie titles.

I'm also partial to "O, Moses, Moses!" from The Ten Commandments. Just about every character in the movie gets to say this line at least once, each in a distinct tone depending on his or her current relationship to Moses. Fun trash, best savored several glasses of wine to the wind, and in the company of smart-ass friends.


The latest picture of the granddaughter, two teeth showing. Reports are that she spent all of last week working on moving each leg in a certain way, then adding arms -- and suddenly she was pushing herself up into a sitting position all by herself.

My daughter and son in law are going to really be in for it within the next two months, because when this little one gets up on her feet finally, she's going places!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


We finally got to see A Single Man last Friday evening. With all systems at the house down because of the power failure, Portsmouth on the coast with its lights bright and The Music Hall functioning was doubly attractive. We had our usual pre-movie dinner at Popovers (very good, reasonably priced, quite healthy food, topped just for fun by outrageously yummy pastries).

We had expected Portsmouth’s healthy-sized gay audience to be out in force, but were surprised to find ourselves surrounded by a large number of middle aged ladies in small groups and older straight couples -- and a sprinkling of young straight couples some of whom seemed to be out on a date. While we weren’t the only gays in the audience, we were a distinct minority (there are several more showings this week, so maybe they’re all going to attend then).

The evening got off to a hilarious start with a seriously unaccustomed glitch by the music Hall’s projectionist: the trailer for The Last Station, the excellent film on the last months of Tolstoy’s life (which we had already seen) came on -– upside down and backwards. The audience giggled as the opening text showed the mistake and howled as the soundtrack began. I listened for a second to English being played backwards and said to Fritz, “now it actually sounds like it’s in Russian.” There was a scurrying around of Music Hall staff and everything was set to rights.

We liked the movie a great deal. I had read the novel last summer and was knocked sideways by the first twenty pages which were really brilliant. Not that the rest wasn't very good indeed, but that beginning grabbed my by the throat and wouldn't let go. I hadn't read a great deal of Isherwood -- and that a couple of decades ago -- so it was as if I were encountering him for the first time.

Tom Ford has adapted the novel for the film, updating it and taking it into a more upscale environment than in Isherwood's novel. That all went down fairly easily for me because the way he's done it is fully the equivalent of the kind of productions period plays and operas are being given these days -- I've even designed a few myself. And he has "opened-up" the novel considerably, which shouldn't surprise anyone who understands the difference between the written page and the needs of a visual medium like cinema.

What we didn't understand was the criticism by several critics who found the movie devoid of emotion and a self-indulgent design-fest for Ford. Emotion in the characters seemed very available to us, particularly in Colin Firth's outstanding performance as George, and also in Julianne Moore's desperately needy Charley.

In the days following seeing A Single Man, I've thought more and more about one thing in particular: how times have changed when a gay-themed movie is considered a good middle-aged women's night out flick, or a 20-something's date movie.


Ffrom BBC News on the Web:

A colossal red granite head of one of Egypt's most famous pharaohs has been unearthed in the southern city of Luxor. The 3,000-year-old head of
Amenhotep III - grandfather of Tutankhamun - was dug out of the ruins of the pharaoh's mortuary temple. Experts say it is the best preserved example of the king's face ever found.

The 8ft head is part of a larger statue, most of which was found several years ago. Antiquities officials say the statue is to be reconstructed.

"Other statues have always had something broken - the tip of the nose, or the face is eroded," said Dr Hourig Sourouzian, who has led the Egyptian-European expedition at the site. "But here, from the top of the crown to the chin, it is so beautifully carved and polished, nothing is broken." Egypt's antiquities chief, Zahi Hawass, described it as "a masterpiece of highly artistic quality".

Amenhotep III ruled Egypt from about 1387 to 1348 BC and presided over a vast empire stretching from Nubia in the south to Syria in the north. Scientists using DNA tests and CT scans on several mummies have identified him as the grandfather of Tutankhamun - the boy-king born of an incestuous marriage between Akhenaten and his sister, both the offspring of Amenhotep III.


By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

More than 5,000 people have shed their clothing on the steps of the Sydney Opera House to pose for a photograph by the American artist Spencer Tunick, famed for his snapshots of mass nudity in public spaces. The organizers had only expected about half that number to take part. The installation had been commissioned by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which took place over the weekend.

For once the eye was diverted away from the magnificent white sails of the Sydney Opera House. It was drawn instead to the tableau of naked flesh assembled on its steps. "Gay men and women lay naked next to their straight neighbours and this delivered a very strong message to the world that Australians embrace a free and equal society," Tunick said.

More than 5,000 men and women shed their clothing - people of all ages, shapes and sizes, who were undeterred by the chilly pre-dawn weather on this, the first morning of the southern autumn. The naked models included a pregnant woman, who went straight to hospital afterwards to give birth, and a television weatherman whose viewers got to see considerably more than his usual Monday morning forecast.

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