Friday, December 31, 2010

 

            Best wishes for a happiness, health, love and friendship. and a great deal of fun in 2011!

For Fritz and me the new year brings the a new enterprise in our careers.  Some of you know this, but last April in the midst of a dinner conversation with the head of the Boston-based chamber opera I've been designing for the last seven years, the subject of a newly commissioned opera came up that had everything arranged for it -- preliminary funding, a composer, a conductor and chamber orchestra, and the interest of a prominent star soprano now resident in New England -- but there was no subject for it.
I asked him what his requirements for the story were, and he said a big role for the aforementioned soprano and if the story had something to do with Boston, so much the better.

Without an hesitation, I immediately said Isabella Stewart Gardner -- social rebel; dynamic arts advocate; patron of painters, musicians, writers; hostess of one of the great salons in the country at which she introduced everybody to everybody, thereby aiding the birth of enormous numbers of arts projects; feminist almost before there was feminism; and purchaser of a massive private collection of paintings and art objects that was eventually housed in a handsome Venetian palazzo-inspired building of her own design and given to the city of Boston as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  Do Google her if you don't know her -- she is an amazing figure.

He looked at me and said that it was a huge life; could it be captured in a one act chamber opera?  I asked if it would be OK for me to make up a scenario to see what might be managed and he said yes.  I went home that night and told Fritz what had happened and he immediately said, "It starts during the 1990 burglary -- flashlights in total darkness and suddenly Isabella is there, drawn back through the ether to protect her creation as the paintings disappear with the thieves."  I countered with an ending that I will not reveal because we believe it to be something of a coup de théâtre and are saving it for the premiere.  But we agreed that we had our beginning and ending, reputedly the two hardest parts of any literary piece to create.  From there we traced a trajectory for the plot from Isabella's arrival in Boston from New York City and immediate friction with staid Boston society to the 1903 opening night of the Museum (she lived in an apartment in the top floor) in 1903 in five scenes, some very comic, others very human and even tragic as necessary to tell the story..  

Another scenario was submitted but the creative team chose ours and we were commissioned to write the text, which we completed and submitted at the end of May.  We had a very enjoyable collaboration with the composer, Robert Edward Smith, while he was writing the music, mostly taking little tucks or adding extra words here and there as required by the vocal lines he was developing.  The musical score was finished a couple of months ago, and we've heard it via a MIDI file which is a little "mechanical" sounding but gives a very good idea of the music.  Although it is his first opera, Robert not only writes good music with interesting melodies and harmonies, but he also knows how to write theatrical scenes and depict characters in music. 


Intermezzo, The New England Chamber Opera Series
presents
the premiere performances of

A Place of Beauty
An opera inspired by the life of Isabella Stewart Gardner

Robert Edward Smith, composer
Libretto by William Fregosi and Fritz Bell from their own story

Barbara Kilduff, soprano, as Isabella

David Feltner, conductor
Kirsten Cairns, director
William Fregosi, set and lighting design

Saturday, May 14 & Sunday, May 15
 At the Boston Conservatory of Music Theater
8 The Fenway, Boston, MA 02215
 


 

Friday, December 24, 2010

 
It's late Christmas Eve and I wanted to wish you all a very Happy Christmas.  We have our ritual every year.  Fritz makes an exceptionally good cheddar cheese soup with a strong dark beer as its base.  We have a bowl of that along with a slice of home-made bread and then go to a candle-lit Quaker Meeting.
We come home to a little more soup and then each of us opens one present from the other.

This year, mine was one of those magnet-held car covers to keep winter ice and snow off the windshield.  His from me was a pair of egg coddlers.  Breakfast tomorrow morning will be marzipan stollen and coffee in the living room as we open presents.

Because the house is so pure in its use of natural materials and has such simple lines, I don't like to use anything artificial to decorate it for the holidays.  I made a new fringed swag for the three main windows out of pine cones from our white pines here and from the pine grove behind the Meeting House.

People have been asking if we have an "indoor/outdoor" tree like last year, but that was a special situation, a freak of nature that comes along very rarely.  We did cut down a perfectly lovely twelve foot tree that's now placed right in the center of those three windows, above. 

On the hillside behind the house this morning.  Ornamental grasses, lavender and juniper in the snow.

Ingredients for our Christmas dinner dessert, a traditional English steamed pudding.  It is based on dried fruit -- raisins, sultanas, currents, candied orange peel and dates soaked in dark beer -- grated apple and carrot, cinnamon, nutmeg, breadcrumbs, baking powder, one egg and four tablespoons of cognac.  There's no sugar in the recipe, which relies on the natural sweetness of the fruit.

Everything is mixed well together and put into a greased pudding basin that is covered and dropped into a bigger pot with water half way up the sides of the basin which is brought to a boil and then simmered in the 250 degree oven of the Aga  for twelve hours.  It is then cooled and steamed again for a short while before being served.   The pudding is turned out onto a dish or platter and served with hard sauce or, in this this recipe, cream.


Some presents under the tree from Fritz's younger sister who loves wrapping gifts. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

 

It is very tempting to go hog-wild celebrating today's vote in the Senate to repeal DADT, the bill now to be sent to the president for his signature.  It IS a signal victory and a cause for rejoicing, but although it will become the law of the land sometime this week, it won't be enforceable because of the built-in "certification process" for quite some time.  A raft of people have to sign off on it and I am certain that the required signatories will be placed under enormous pressure to withhold their endorsement by a wide range of anti-gay and Christian groups.

Indeed they have already released what were surely pre-prepared statements vowing vengeance on all who voted for repeal as well as an immediate effort in the new Congress to repeal the repeal.  One antagonist, American Family Association radio host Bryan Fischer, made this extraordinary statement:

"The armies of other nations have allowed gays to serve openly in the military. The reason they could afford to do this is simple: they could allow homosexuals to serve in their military because we didn’t allow them to serve in ours. They knew they could count on the strength, might, power, and cohesion of the U.S. military to intervene whenever and wherever necessary to pull their fannies out of the fire and squash the forces of tyranny wherever they raised their ugly heads around the world.

"Those days are now gone. We will no longer be able to bail out these other emasculated armies because ours will now be feminized and neutered beyond repair, and there is no one left to bail us out. We have been permanently weakened as a military and as a nation by these misguided and treasonous Republican senators, and the world is now a more dangerous place for us all."

The second sentence is the key to the willful ignorance and/or outright lying embraced and practiced by many who are leading the fight against gay rights.  The second sentence clearly states that there have never been gays and lesbians in our armed forces but now there will be.  I have sensed this in virtually all statements made by those who uphold DADT -- they either believe or want to make the American population believe that repealing DADT will allow gays to flood into a military where they have never been.  It's outright falsehood, of course, lying pure and simple.

U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, clearly stated on national television that he had been serving with gay comrades since the '80s and that they were outstanding members of the military.  Any number of senators and representatives have acknowledged in public that homosexuals have been part of the American military back to the days of the Revolution.  And the approximately 14,000 men and women who have been thrown out of the various Forces for being gay should be a clue to the fact that GAYS HAVE BEEN IN THE MILITARY all along.  But still the opponents of gay rights pump out the lies and large numbers of Americans believe them.  It's astonishing and disheartening, an indictment of our educational system and of the power of hatred to convince people that what is true is actually false and what is false is actually true.

Yes, it's a happy day but a long road still stretches out before us.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

 
Thursday of this week -- the 16th -- marks the 50th anniversary of what was at that point in time the worst air disaster to strike a heavily settled city in the U.S.   I was 15 and a junior in high school; I've remembered the event vividly for all these years and was surprised and impressed that the New York Times is featuring articles all this week on various aspects of the disaster.

This was part of the scene in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY after the collision of a big United jetliner and a smaller commuter-sized TWA plane in fog and snow about a thousand feet over New York City.  Both planes went down, the smaller one in a Staten Island neighborhood with no survivors, the United liner destroying several buildings as chunks of it crashed to earth with numerous deaths on the ground and, seemingly against all odds, one survivor. 

This is the picture that appeared on the first page of the N.Y. Daily News, taken as Stephen Baltz, an 11 year old Illinois boy, was being cared for by passers-by before police could get him to hospital.   Stephen, traveling alone to New York to join his parents who had flown earlier, was sitting in the lap of a flight attendant for landing when the TWA prop plane clipped the bigger jet which began to break apart.  When the section carrying Stephen hit the street it cracked open and he was thrown onto a snowbank.

He lived for just over 24 hours.  Hospital staff marveled at how his father could sit with so badly injured a child and speak to him calmly, encouragingly and sweetly, breaking down only when he was out of the room.   But the burns and other injuries were too severe and the medical staff knew from the beginning that it was only a matter of time.   In the end, the chief physician said, Stephen just smiled and "went to sleep. "

Brooklyn has always had closely knit communities.  For the day that he lived among them, Stephen became everybody's foster child and his death hit hard.  He was mourned as one of their own along with those of their own they lost when destruction rained down on them fifty years ago this Thursday.

********      

The legendary Swiss tenor Hugues Cuenod died sometime between the 3rd and the 6th of this month  -- at the age of 108.  The fact that none of the news services is able to peg the date with certainty is somehow appropriate, as if he went on so long that nobody's sure he's actually gone. 

Hughes Cuenod (pronounced Kwe NOH), Hughie to his friends, was born in 1902 and had a false start by training as a baritone.  Eventually he found his true voice, a high, clear, elegant tenor perfect for French and French-influenced music.  He became the darling of composers and musicians at the top of the profession.  Nadia Boulanger, one the most influential and prolific musicians and music educators in history, chose him for a series of recordings of late medieval and Renaissance vocal music to spearhead a rediscovery of "ancient" music.  On the other hand, he sang Alban Berg's twelve-tone opera Wozzeck in Italian at La Scala in Milan, and living composers loved writing for him.  Igor Stravinsky insisted he appear in the premiere of his 1950 opera The Rake's Progress, and Benjamin Britten wrote a number of songs for him.

Despite the wide range of styles and eras that Cuenod mastered, he was not interested in all composers by any means: "I leave Beethoven alone," he revealed in a New York Times interview.  "It always seemed such unnecessary music."

But Hughie wasn't about to be limited to just "classical" music; he did a hundred and twenty or so performances of Noel Coward's musical Bittersweet on Broadway -- in a role especially written for him, of course.


Cuenod, unlike most singers, never had a vocal crisis at any point along the way and his voice never really went into decline (jokingly, he said he never lost his voice because he never had one to begin with).   The above photo, taken in his 70s, shows him on the lawn of the estate at Gyndebourne in southern England, home of a famous summer festival at which he gave somewhere between 470 and 500 performances.  His last documented performance occurred when he was 92 in Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin in a famous cameo role as the sweet, slightly befuddled Monsieur Triquet, tutor to wealthy 19th century Russian family.

But Cuenod himself never became befuddled and he staved off frailty for another couple of decades.  He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1987 at age 85 as the ancient Emperor in Puccini's Turandot, becoming instantaneously the oldest artist ever to sing there.  A member of the chorus at that time spoke of how amusing it was to see him working to play a doddering old man as he himself was lithe and energetic off stage.  A year later he met Alfred Augustin who was 45.  The two fell in love and settled down together.  Well, "settled down" might be a bit misleading.  Three years ago Opera News did an article on Cuenod who said he liked to go for rides in Augustin's convertible sports car at high speeds, letting his long white hair fly out behind him.  That was also the year that same-sex marriage was begun in Switzerland and the two men married after twenty years together.

Cuenod was active pretty much to the end.  Cause of death hasn't been announced.  Perhaps after such a long, rewarding, varied and amazing life, he decided it was time to try something else.

********

My daughter sent this picture of my granddaughter earlier his week.  At sixteen months old, she's getting into art -- with both hands.  

Sunday, December 05, 2010

 
I'm trying to work through an injury to my left knee that I suffered on the hillside above the house, breaking soil and removing huge amounts of rock from a garden patch to be planted next spring.  It will feature low bush blueberries, black huckleberries and a small varriety of flowering bushes and ground covers.  The grade on that part of the hillside is steep and part of what I was doing was taking the bigger rocks I was digging up and using them to terrace the various sections of the giant paisley-shaped plot whose curved form hugs a set of steps I had set into the ground a couple of years ago.

Well, with parts of the ground I was clearing covered by small loose stones, other parts covered in matted down grass that was slippery.  With all that under foot, I went down on my left leg which twisted slightly so the side of my knee hit the ground on some rock.  I can walk perfectly well but any bending of the knee is painful not in the front, and not in the joint, but across the back of the knee that also stiffens up seriously whenever I sit for more than about five minutes.

After several days of doing all the right things with no improvement, I went to the doctor Friday for an exam and x-ray.  I'll hear the results tomorrow.  Meanwhile, I'm doing a lot of work in the house.  Our Christmas gifts are 90% wrapped and at least 3/4 of the cards are addressed and stamped.  I've never been this far ahead before!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

 
 I don't usually put whole articles or reviews out here on DesignerBlog but this one from the New York Times about a special vocal concert in New York City struck me as one in which many of you would be interested.  The huge presence of gays and lesbians in the performing arts and in audiences for the performing arts has long been recognized.  Gay-themed material shows up regularly now on the theater, opera and musical stage, while characters in older works who are not overtly gay are being re-examined by actors and directors based on coded hints in the writing, facts surrounding the work’s creation, etc.

Mr. Stephen Blier, who suffers from a paralysis that has blessedly not invaded his arms and hands, assembled material and an excellent vocal quartette to present a specifically gay-themed song recital of an openness that breaks some new ground.


For Song Festival, a Program of Personal Significance
by Anthony Tommasini

  The pianist Steven Blier and the vocalists, from left, Scott Murphee, Matthew Worth, Jesse Blumberg and Matt Boehler at Merkin Concert Hall on Tuesday.    Photo by Jennifer Taylor for The New York Times

On Tuesday night at Merkin Concert Hall the sensitive pianist and increasingly busy vocal coach Steven Blier presented a program he says he has wanted to do since he was a co-founder of the New York Festival of Song in 1988. 

“Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay Life,” a richly varied 90-minute recital, delivered on the promise of its title. Such programs can easily fall into the trap of social politics and turn maudlin, agenda driven and campy. This one, in the first of two performances, was insightful and imaginative, touching and funny, ranging from Schubert and Saint-Saëns to Bernstein and Bolcom.

Mr. Blier had impressive partners for this journey in the tenor Scott Murphee, the baritones Jesse Blumberg and Matthew Worth and the bass Matt Boehler. Here were four vocally gifted young artists palpably committed to the project and, most important to an exacting coach like Mr. Blier, instinctive communicators who proved that operatic voices can sing English with conversational clarity if they care enough.

In a way it is sad that it took Mr. Blier so long to present a program that had such personal significance. He was stuck, he explains in revealing program notes, “poised between gung-ho and gun-shy.” But he was aware that the premise behind a program of songs about gay men and gay life was open to question.  “And what is a gay song anyway?” he asks in the notes. “A song that prefers to sleep with other songs of the same gender?” 

Still, he has strong feelings about the gay resonances that run through many songs, even those in which these themes seem submerged. His take came through with the opening work, when Mr. Boehler sang “The Purest Kind of Guy,” with music and lyrics by Marc Blitzstein, from the 1941 musical “No for an Answer.” In the show the song was sung by Paul Robeson as a birthday tribute of a “brotherly variety” to another man, Mr. Blier said. 

In Mr. Boehler’s performance, with lines like “And when a man’s O.K.,/I know it a mile away,” sung without a trace of wink-wink irony, it emerged as an ode about “gaydar,” as Mr. Blier said, the way gay people “sniff out which team another person plays on.”

Mr. Blier also teased out the gay resonances of “Tennis Duet,” from the Cy Coleman musical “City of Angels,” with lyrics by David Zippel. In the show the song is a duet for two tennis players in the locker room of the Yale Club, Mr. Blier explained. But sung here with vitality and coyness by Mr. Murphee and Mr. Worth, it seemed a slyly seductive duo: “I bet you like to play rough./I like to work up a sweat.” 

The program’s first segment, “Man to Man,” explored explicit gay longing, especially in Mr. Blumberg’s poignant performance of Christopher Berg’s wistful “Song (Is It Dirty).” The music sets a poem by Frank O’Hara that couches a plea for self-acceptance in the imagery of gritty urban life. City air may be dirty, but “you don’t refuse to breathe do you,” O’Hara asks. 

Two segments explored “Gay Heritage in Art Song,” with works by Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Griffes, Britten and others; another took the audience on a plucky exploration of drag. The final segment, “Encounter, Crisis, Liberation, Celebration,” included a song by Chris De Blasio from “The AIDS Quilt Songbook” and Bernstein’s boldest affirmation of gay love, “To What You Said,” from “Songfest,” a setting of Whitman. 

And to end there was Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top.” In this decoded context, with lines traded by the four singers, the title took on a new spin, as Mr. Blier said. Even the encore was sweet: “My Guy,” the Motown hit, sung by the willing quartet joyously spinning lines like “Nothing you can say,/Can tear me away,/From my guy.”

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