Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The last couple of weeks have been taken up with the winter production of Intermezzo, The New England Chamber Opera Series, for whom I have designed sets and lights for the last seven years.  We are a lean, enterprising and adventurous company, one that deals only in modern or absolutely contemporary material, in English, with productions conceived and directed in the firm belief that opera is theater rather than a concert in gorgeous costumes.  We own nothing -- no theater or rehearsal space, no offices, no storage space but the basements, attics and storage sheds of the places in which we live.

Fully a third of what we present is new work, commissioned by the company director with funds raised from donors, foundations and benefit concerts.  We rent spaces around the city of Boston based on their suitability to the material being produced, and move in for about a week for technical and dress rehearsals and two performances.  Then we strike the sets and pack up the costumes and quietly disappear until the next time.

Last week, the program was called Boys' Night Out, featuring three baritones in a varied program of all American material.  We opened with Dominick Argento's The Andrée Expedition, a song cycle based on the journal entries and letters written but never sent home by three Arctic explorers who set out to cross the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon in 1897.  Originally written to be sung by one baritone,  we performed it with the composer's blessing with three, each taking the role of one of the men, and expertly staged by our director, Kirsten Cairns.  

Expedition leader Solomon August Andrée, scientist Knut Frankel, and photographer Nils Strindberg set off in the summer of 1897 from northern Sweden (photo above taken moments before the balloon ascended) with a considerable amount of gear but some very faulty assumptions and expectations. 

The balloon sailed northward rapidly for three days (photo taken as the balloon cleared land), moving into fog and drizzle in freezing conditions that deposited a ton or more of ice on the balloon bag.  Ice coating the lines that tethered the bag to the gondola which was repeatedly slammed onto the ice as the balloon tried in vain to rise only to be weighed back down repeatedly.

Eventually the balloon and gondola crashed onto the ice, never to rise again (Photo by Nils Strindberg, from the Corbis/Bettman archive).  The men unloaded three heavy sledges and piled them with as much of their stock of supplies as they could and began the long trek south.

Strindberg documented their journey over sometimes impossibly jumbled ice with this camera (above).  Supplies ran low and they shot polar bears for food.  They managed to find a low, rocky patch of land, White Island, and dragged what was left of their supplies off the ice.  Exhaustion and illness overcame them, particularly as the Arctic winter began and intensified.  Hallucinations set in.   

Nils Strindberg was the first to die, leaving behind a sheaf of letters written to his beloved Anna.  Frankel buried him in the cleft of a rock, under a pile of other rocks, seen above.  Andrée died soon after, babbling incoherently, and Frankel some unknown period of time later. 

Thirty three years later the remains of their last camp were discovered totally by accident.  Their remains and everything that had survived were taken back to Stockholm.  The film in Strindberg's camera was still viable, giving an invaluable picture of their ill-starred voyage.  For some inexplicable reason, their bodies were cremated before any autopsies could be made.  The question of how they died has never been resolved but there are many theories -- parasites from eating raw polar bear meat, suicide by overdosing on opium (of which they had a large supply), vitamin A poisoning from eating bear liver, failure of vital organs due to exhaustion, deprivation and hypothermia.  One researcher, after carefully examining their clothes, stated that they had died of polar bear attacks. 

They received state funerals with high honors (above, the procession from the ship on which they were transported from White Island).

Argento's music is eloquent and specific in characterization of the three very different men: the romantic dreamer Strindberg (exquisitely sung by Sumner Thompson), the idealistic and probably irresponsible Andrée, and the pragmatic observer Frankel.  There's not a trace of self-pity in the material the men left behind and no mawkishness or sentimentality on the deeply human tone of the music.  The performance was heartbreaking and applauded lengthily by an unexpectedly large audience that had (almost ironically) slogged through frigid, icy and snow-clogged streets.

The second half began with an 18 minute monodrama, De Profundis by composer Thomas Oboe Lee, the text based on an excerpted version of Oscar Wilde's despairing letter from Redding Jail to his unfeeling, betraying young lover Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas), intensely sung by John Whittlesey.  The evening ended with a delightful four song cycle put together by David Kravitz about men's clothing called The Suit Suite. 


Good blogger buddy RG (dulce y peligroso) posted the above and I gleefully repost it here.  Among other things it gets right is my long-held belief that if Jesus were to come back tomorrow and visit the US Congress, or the Mormon Tabernacle, St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, or any of the huge Christian mega-churches in the mid west, they'd take one look at him, listen for about 45 seconds -- then hustle him out the door and throw him into the street with warnings not to come back, EVER.  Thanks, Rob!

Thursday, January 13, 2011


From The Village Voice:

Ellen Stewart, La MaMa Founder, Has Died at Age 91


Ellen Stewart at La MaMa in 1991 (photo by Jonathan Slaff)

Ellen Stewart, 91, universally known as La Mama and acclaimed as one of the formidable figures who shaped the Off-Off-Broadway theater movement, died peacefully in her sleep on Wednesday night. The founder and guiding spirit of Café La MaMa, later known as La MaMa E.T.C. (standing for "Experimental Theatre Club"), she created a haven for innovative playwrights, directors, designers, and performers that has had permanent artistic effects worldwide. A homey, straightforward, no-nonsense woman, she was famous for the signature gesture by which, in the early years, she opened every La MaMa performance: ringing a cowbell and declaring, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to La MaMa, dedicated to the playwright and to all aspects of the theater."

And her theater was indeed so dedicated. A passionate believer in internationalism and cultural freedom, Ellen Stewart sent troupes from LaMaMa across the globe, and traveled it herself in search of kindred spirits she could bring back to show their work at home. The original La MaMa Troupe, formed by director Tom O'Horgan, startled Europe with plays by new writers like Paul Foster, Rochelle Owens, and Sam Shepard; an important early importation, found at a theater festival in Bucharest, was the young director Andrei Serban, whose trilogy of Greek tragedy stagings became the keystone work of another La MaMa troupe. The countless artists who have worked since those days at La MaMa's three spaces on East 4th Street (one of them now renamed the Ellen Stewart Theatre) have built from the ring of that first cowbell a peal of chimes that will never stop resonating to her memory worldwide.


During a bad quarter of a century or so when the classic American musical seemed to be moving toward extinction, when the costs of Broadway productions (and everything else in New York) were driving playwrights away from the City, and when revivals were almost the only bankable property on Broadway, there was Off-Broadway and Off-off Broadway.  Ellen Stewart, along with the late, dearly loved and much lamented Joe Papp, became twin pillars of New York Theater.  Both were nurturers.  Each saw new playwrights mature as writers and achieve fame as a result of their care, and the opportunities Papp and Stewart gave them.  Off and Off-off became the nursery for important work in acting, directing and, most importantly, writing. 

Stewart's death marks the end of a dazzlingly creative and exciting era for theater in New York City.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

There has been a flurry of comment over a speech by Supreme Court ultra-conservative Antonin Scalia to the effect that the 14th Amendment to the constitution offers no rights to protection against discrimination to gays and Lesbians (the kind of statement one would expect from Scalia) but that there is also no protection for women, which is a surprise.

Scalia said that the U.S.Constitution doesn't support or mandate discrimination against homosexuals or women but neither does it protect them.  He says it's all a matter for state laws to take care of -- which means IF the individual states decide to protect these two groups which overlap in the lesbian community.  He seems to live somewhere in the 18th century where women had no rights and more or less BELONGED to men -- their fathers and husbands.  By implication, Mr. Justice Scalia sees no problem that only heterosexual males (he was surprisingly magnanimous in not excluding Asian, Hispanic and African-American males) should be considered eligible for -- and worthy of -- protection from discrimination of all kinds under the Constitution.

So, I looked up the passage and here's what it says:

Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet are now fairly frequently interviewed and it has just been announced that:

Stonestreet and Ferguson to Host Writers Guild Awards

By Avocate.com Editors
Modern Family stars Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson are scheduled to host the West Coast Writers Guild of America Awards on February 5.

The Emmy-nominated actors play gay couple Cameron and Mitchell on the hit ABC series.
“Audiences don’t know these guys can sing, dance, juggle, clown, and have done everything from motion pictures to Broadway,” WGA producer Spike Jones Jr. said in a statement. “They’re a pair of old-fashioned entertainers, and I’m looking forward to cutting them loose.”

Stonestreet said he is “humbled and honored” to be asked to host the awards while Ferguson said he jumps at any chance to be around Eric.

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