Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Fritz and I did a complete read-through of the first draft of the libretto for the new opera about Isabella Stewart Gardner yesterday morning, did a lot of small but significant tweaking, then submitted it to the rest of the creative team. We are now awaiting comments, suggestions, total rejection -- whatever comes back. A lot of our work now will be in adjusting things to serve the composer's style and compositional process, the time-honored role of librettists throughout opera history right back to 1597, the official date of the first opera (which I don't accept, believing the art form to be much older, but that's another story entirely). The famous portrait of Isabella by John Singer Sargent, above, plays a part in our libretto.

In her early 80s, long a widow who had spent years and a tremendous amount of her own physical effort in the creation of Fenway Court, aka popularly "The Palace", the Museum /home of her final years, Mrs. Gardner suffered a series of small strokes and then a catastrophic one. Partially paralyzed, this most physically active and dynamic of women was painted again by Sargent, seated on a couch, supported by pillows and draped in a lengthy piece of white, gauzy fabric. Sargent painted this one in water color very quickly and with immence skill, capturing the frail but still indomitable Isabella, as one commentator characterized the image, like a Roman priestess.

As far as I know, this is the first opera about Isabella Gardner, which is surprising because her life was lived with art, music, theater, public spectacle, literature, the highest in fashion, and fascinating characters surrounding her at all times. If that isn't operatic, I don't know what is!


Here's the latest on the little family growing before our eyes above our front door.

Mother bird on the chain of the whirligig that hangs in front of the house about seven feet away from the nest, from which she keeps a sharp eye on anyone who approaches for any reason from any direction.

Four little Eastern Phoebies now more than filling the nest. The next step will be for Mamma to kick them out for their own good and get them flying. (The step after that will be for us to clean up our front door transom ledge.)

But we will not remove the nest because Phoebies generally raise two broods of chicks a summer, using the same nest over again as a general rule, and we don't want to miss that if it happens.

The parents on the father bird's perch about 20 feet away from the nest, from which he keeps watch on things. She joins him on occasion, particularly when they go out together to gather food to feed the chicks.

Down below, our resident chipmunk likes to sit on the table on the little deck outside the front door. I built the deck, under which he lives, so we could have a place to sit out, particularly at the end of the day and look at our plantings in the late afternoon sun as it's beginning to set. Whenever I pass by, he warns me away loudly and I usually stop to inform him that it's really MY territory, thank you very much -- but of course I get absolutely nowhere on that subject.

Day lilies growing up through a bank of crown vetch. Fritz and I jokingly call it kvetch -- Yiddish for "complain"-- because so many people regard it as an invasive pest plant. The photo captures the orange of the lilies well but, unfortunately, not the lovely, delicate lavender of the kvetch.

A giant Wooly Mullein outside the front entrance of Fritz's Center. As it was beginning we agreed to leave it there, particularly as it developed into a marvelous sculptural piece. One of the teachers who does the art classes in the Masters Degree program loves it; she's having her students sketch it and otherwise use it as the subject in various projects.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Vibrant, active friends of mine who had retired before I did almost universally told me that they had no idea how they had ever found the time to work. I'm experiencing that same surprise myself these days.

With good weather this spring, I've gotten more work done on remaking the dry, stone-littered landscape around the house just in May and June than I was able to accomplish in all of last year's near disastrous, perpetually rainy spring and early summer. There have been nine weeks of daily drives into Manchester, NH for Fritz's radiation treatments that, happily, ended just last Thursday, and a road trip to West Chester, PA for a graduation in Fritz's family during which I suddenly found myself face to face with the man who taught me lighting design and other production techniques when I was in college. At ten days short of the half way mark in 2010, it's been a busy, challenging, mainly very happy time.


And now a great project has begun. Intermezzo, the New England Chamber Opera for which I've designed sets and lighting for the last seven years, has begun development of a new one-act opera (a third of what we produce is new work that the company commissions). I was having dinner with the company's founder/director before seeing him in a performance in Boston a couple of months ago and we talked about how things stood. We had a composer, a conductor and an internationally well-known soprano with strong Boston connections had expressed interest in doing something with the company.

Now, he said, we needed a subject for the opera, one that with a strong role for the leading lady and, he added almost parenthetically, it would be nice if it was about Boston in some way.

I put together in my head the vibrant, charismatic soprano (many of whose performances I have seen in a wide variety of roles over the years), Boston, and the need for a strong central character and immediately suggested Isabella Stewart Gardner. His eyes lit up.

Isabella Stewart ("Mrs. Jack") Gardner (1840-1924) was a New York girl from a well-to-do family who married into one of the great Boston families in 1860. John L. "Jack" Gardner was the son of a Gardner and a Peabody. When she arrived in Boston, Isabella began a 65 year career as social rebel, art collector on a grand scale, patron of the arts, world traveler, and proto-feminist by doing a great many things that women just DIDN'T DO in Boston in the 19th century. Google her; it's a great story -- she was a three ring circus all by herself.

The crowning glory of Isabella's career was the construction of a museum in the form of a Venetian Palazzo in the then (1902-03) barren Fenway district of Boston. She hung her massive collection, and invited the public to tour it several days a month. On her death, the museum and its contents passed in trust to the City of Boston and its people. She remains a powerful icon in Boston today, 85 years after her death at the age of 85.

I asked if he'd like me to work up a possible scenario and he gave me the go-ahead. When I got home, I told all of the above to Fritz who immediately put out an idea for the beginning of the opera that was just about perfect. I emailed the scenario we devised to the interested parties. It was liked by all, pending further development, which it is getting. We are now writing actual text.

Fritz and I are officially the librettists for the new opera to be premiered some time next spring!

Chief among the artists in Isabella's vast circle of painters, musicians, writers and performers was the American John Singer Sargent. Sargent had the ability to capture expressions and, particularly, the texture of fabric or light breaking across an arm or face with a few quick, sometimes almost brutal brush strokes. From a short distance, the satin in an evening gown can have the most perfect sheen which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a single slash with the brush that is almost shockingly crude. Yet, it's exactly right. The above portrait of a man in a hooded garment is a good example.


The fuzzy little head with just a hint of its orange bill has been poking up above the rim of the nest over our front door for the past couple of days. Today, a second head joined it. The parent birds have an elaborate routine worked out to tend the nest and lead anyone who approaches it away from the area. Unlike many of the nest scenes in the nature shows, the young in this nest do not sit there screaming for food incessantly. Whether the mother bird is super-competent at keeping them full, or Eastern Phoebes are just very quiet birds, we never hear a sound.

Fritz suggested I set up a ladder inside the house and see if I could peer into the nest to find out how many chicks there were. They're all in the fuzz-ball stage at this point but there seem to be four altogether. We've been having a delightful time watching the little family develop.


With thanks to Joe Jervis of the blog Joe.My.God, this delightful shot of the shapes made by light pouring through a balustrade -- at the Vatican in Rome.


And speaking of animals. Starr in her blatant "I'm ready for my tummy rub now" pose. Sometimes this goes on right on the laptop's keyboard.


A wave off the coast of Alabama. Tony Heyward, BP's CEO with a gift for covering himself with bad publicity, got his wish to get some of his life back by participating in a sailing race in the pristine waters off the coast of England. This is what things looked like along the Gulf Coast of the U.S. from which he was happy to escape.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


It's the beginning of Pride Weekend in Boston

Best wishes and congratulations to all our friends who are marching in the parade or lining the streets, to the Boston Gay Men's Chorus, to Dykes on Bikes that traditionally leads the parade through the streets of the city, and a big thank you to all those politicians and public figures who have the integrity and guts to walk openly with Boston's LGBT community.


We're off to West Chester, PA for the graduation of one of Fritz's great nieces from the Westtown School. It's a K thru 12 Quaker school that has educated many generations of his family, including Fritz himself. He has left a unique legacy to the school and to all the students who followed him there -- the design of the theater, a modified amphitheater with continental seating, perfect sightlines, and an impressive balance of proportions, simplicity and functionality.

Of course, I'm not biased or anything. :-)

Sunday, June 06, 2010

There's a Pulitzer Prize awarded for photojournalism and I wouldn't be surprised if this one wasn't nominated, or if it took the prize if it were:

It's a horrific document of just what the oil slick means to wildlife of all kinds and an further indictment, if such be needed, of our continuing dependence on petroleum, particularly that which is gotten by deep water drilling. I read today that Republican Representative from Alaska, Don Young has dismissed the oil spill resulting from BP's exploded rig as "not a national disaster", but "Nature taking its course". Were Rep. Young to be dipped in the oil and left to his own devices on the beach like this terrified bird, I wonder if he might not change his tune. But I also read that Rep. Young was firmly in the pocket of Big Oil.

Above is a computer model of how the oil spill will spread into the Atlantic when and if the Gulf Loop Current sweeps it into the Atlantic and up the east coast. Around Cape Hatteras, it spreads eastward, avoiding the Northeast but probably engulfing Bermuda whose economy depends to a large extent on luxury beach resorts. BP could find itself facing enormous damage payments to Bermuda if the tourist industry there died along with the beaches and the coral reefs that protect much of the island.


The red lilies in the planter outside our bedroom window have divided and put out a gorgeous display this summer. A chipmunk has taken up residence under the little deck and gives me a scolding every time I walk by in a way he finds threatening.

The teardrop shaped object to the right of the windows is a hatching nest for mason bees. The females lay their eggs in the bamboo tubes and plaster over the openings with mud. Only one tube was filled last fall but the young bee or bees broke through the barrier and went out into Nature a month or so ago. We're hoping for more tubes to be used as incubators this fall.

A bird began building her nest on the ledge of the transom over our front door a week ago and is now sitting on her eggs. She used to flee any time we came near or opened the front door but now a combination of getting used to us and duty to her young keeps her on the nest. We're pretty sure she's an Eastern Phoebe. Pictures of several mouths sticking up in the air waiting to be fed when the happy time comes.

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