Thursday, April 28, 2011

Nothing recently that I can think of shows more spectacularly the incredible shift away from pictorially realistic stage productions than these giant constructions for the Bregenz festival on Lake Constance in Austria.

Bregenz presents opera on a stage secured just off shore.  From everything I have heard, the generally calm surface of the lake provides a terrific sounding board for voices, making for very good acoustics.  Bregenz used to put its operas on in relatively conventional productions on a flat stage.  However the new aesthetic that calls for a very different way of telling the story has led to a radically new approach to scenography at the Festival.  The picture above is from a production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) which tells the historical story of the assassination of Swedish King Gustav III while he was attending a masquerade ball at Stockholm's opera house.

This giant sculpture is part of the set for Giordano's Andrea Chenier, set in the French Revolution.  The central character is André Chenier a French lyric poet and, later, political satirist who was guillotined just three days before the end of the Reign of Terror as an enemy of the Revolution.  The highly Romantic plot features a young noblewoman in love with the poet, who assumes the identity of one of the condemned who has young children, so that she can take her place and die with Chenier.  It's not one of the great intellectual evenings in the opera house, but it has some very fine music and a spectacular role for an Italian dramatic tenor in full cry.

The figure in the photo above is clearly meant to be Jean-Paul Marat (death portrait below), a radical revolutionary who supported many of the more violent excesses of the Revolution and who was killed in his bath by Charlotte Corday about whom Chenier wrote an admiring poem.  In addition to Giordano's opera, there is Peter Weiss' play titled The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, as performed by the inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade, (1963) also known as Marat/Sade, Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, Georg Buchner's play Danton's Death and Gottfried von Einem's opera made from it, and Pietro Mascagni's Il Piccolo Marat -- among others --  that mine the French Revolution which is in itself an extremely operatic subject.


The event covered in this article occurred two years ago but was recently pointed out by one of the bloggers I read regularly.  I think that things are totally out of control in certain parts of the country if this level of ignorance, willful or otherwise, exists:

Bill Nye, the harmless children's edu-tainer known as "The Science Guy," managed to offend a select group of adults in Waco, Texas at a presentation, when he suggested that the moon does not emit light, but instead reflects the light of the sun.

As even most elementary-school graduates know, the moon reflects the light of the sun but produces no light of its own.

But don't tell that to the good people of Waco, who were "visibly angered by what some perceived as irreverence," according to the Waco Tribune.

Nye was in town to participate in McLennan Community College's Distinguished Lecture Series. He gave two lectures on such unfunny and adult topics as global warming, Mars exploration, and energy consumption.

But nothing got people as riled as when he brought up Genesis 1:16, which reads: "God made two great lights -- the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars."

The lesser light, he pointed out, is not a light at all, but only a reflector.

At this point, several people in the audience stormed out in fury. One woman yelled "We believe in God!" and left with three children, thus ensuring that people across America would read about the incident and conclude that Waco is as nutty as they'd always suspected.

This story originally appeared in the Waco Tribune, but the newspaper has mysteriously pulled its story from the online version, presumably to avoid further embarrassment.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Today I scored my 300,000th hit on DesignerBlog. Thank you all who made this possible, to my regular connenters, to my lurkers, to everyone who googles or otherwise searches for pictures of Italian ballet dancer Roberto Bolle -- and yes, they are here back in the archives! It's been fun and very enriching to have you all here and I hope you'll continue to stop by regularly.


Joel Derfner is a multi-talented blogger (The Search for Love in Manhattan) in NYC. He published a delightful book of gay haiku several years ago and his blog covers a wide variety of topics, beautifully written. His current post is devoted to a topic that should need no review -- the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, reputedly by god because of their homosexual activity.

Of course, even a cursory reading of the Bible on the topic reveals that there is no homosexuality involved at all anywhere in the Sodom story, and geologists and vulcanologists believe that the cities were destroyed, Pompeii-like, by volcanic activity, and that the occasional salt pillar eroded out of the side of Mount Sodom by the Dead Sea are the origin of the myth of Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt.

Nevertheless, gay men are demonized in many Christian circles as sodomites engaging in sodomy.

Here is Joel's post on the subject:

I recently read an excellent book called Wrestling With God and Men, an examination of homosexuality in the Jewish tradition, by Rabbi Steven Greenberg.

Lots of people talk nowadays about the idea that the sin of Sodom wasn't homosexuality but inhospitability—that when God, in Genesis 18:21, said, "I will go down and see whether they have acted altogether according to the cry that has reached me," He was talking not about homosexuality or sexual excess in general but about arrogance, greed, and scorn for the poor.  I always assumed that this was to some extent a modern reinterpretation, but it turns out that this has been the Jewish view of Sodom for literally thousands of years. Rabbi Greenberg has this to say:

"Rabbinic legends about Sodom describe an area of unusual natural resources, precious stones, silver, and gold. Every path in Sodom, say the sages, was lined with seven rows of fruit trees. Jealous of their great weath and suspicious of outsiders' desire to share in it, the city's inhabitants agreed to overturn the ancient law of hospitality to wayfarers. 

The legislation later included a prohibition to give charity to anyone. One legend claims that when a beggar would wander into Sodom, the people would mark their names on their coins and give him a dinar. However, no one would sell him bread. When he perished of hunger, everyone would come and claim his coin. A maiden once secretly carried bread concealed in her water pitcher to a poor person in the street. After three days passed and the man didn't die, the maiden was discovered. They covered the girl with honey and put her atop the city walls. The bees came and ate her. Hers was the cry that came up to God, the cry that inaugurated the angelic visit and its consequences."

Now, while searching for a sufficiently catastrophic painting of Sodom's destruction (see above) I was directed to an article that discusses the fact that even some hard-core evangelicals are admitting the same thing -- that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has nothing to do with homosexuality and cannot be used to condemn homosexuality of gays and lesbians (from the site GayChristian 101):

Anti-gay Evangelical Authors Admit That The Sodom Story Is NOT About Homosexuality

Sodom: After years of false teaching in churches about what really happened in Sodom 3800 years ago, the trajectory of Biblical truth is finally being acknowledged by prominent anti-gay evangelical scholars. Its about time.

Dr. Richard Hayes, of Duke Divinity School,

is a well-known evangelical author. He wrote The Moral Vision Of The New Testament, in which he defends the anti-gay viewpoint. Yet in spite of the fact that he regards all gay relationships as sinful, Dr. Hayes admits that the Sodom story:
"is actually irrelevant to the topic [of homosexuality].   There is nothing in the passage pertinent to a judgment about the morality of consensual homosexual intercourse."
(From Dr. Richard Hayes, in an article entitled, “Awaiting the Redemption of Our Bodies”).

Dr. William Brownlee, Claremont Graduate School

Dr. Brownlee, 1917-1983, an internationally renowned expert on the Hebrew language and the Dead Sea Scrolls said about the Sodom story:  "The oppression of the stranger is the basic element of Genesis 19:1-9 ‘sodomy’ in Genesis is basically oppression of the weak and helpless." (Dr. William Brownlee, Professor of Religion at the Claremont Graduate School and Professor of Old Testament at the School of Theology, Claremont, California).

Bob Davies, Former Executive Director of Exodus International.

"Pro-gay theologians are correct in saying that this passage [Genesis 19] does not provide a strong argument for prohibiting all homosexual acts."(Bob Davies, conservative evangelical and national Executive Director of Exodus International, the largest Ex-Gay group in the world, in his book Coming Out Of Homosexuality, published in 1993).

Dr. Chris Heard, Assistant Professor of Religion, Pepperdine University.

“The “sin of Sodom” per Genesis 19 has to do with using sexual cruelty and violence to oppress and demean outsiders. It has nothing to do with homosexuality in the modern sense of sexual desire oriented toward members of one’s own biological sex, and certainly has nothing to say about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of loving, committed, sexual relationships between members of the same biological sex.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

I didn't mean for more than a full week to go by without posting, but it's getting very busy as we're in the last month before the opening of the opera whose libretto we wrote, and which I'm designing.  The premiere is May 14 at the Boston Conservatory of Music's newly rebuilt theater.  As always, our company produces relatively modestly but this particular project is being treated as somewhat special; we have an important singer headlining the cast, and the subject matter celebrates an icon of the arts and of Boston history.

I'm building the set pieces in a new workshop that Fritz's nephew and I have been developing upstairs in a storage area of the Center.  It isn't finished yet but is far enough along that I can build relatively small pieces easily; every piece of scenery has to be built in small sections that can be transported easily in my car and then assembled into the larger scenic units when we move into the rehearsal hall adjoining the theater in early May.


In the meanwhile, we had some events going on here that have occupied a lot of time.  Fritz and I  been hosted a small reunion of some classmates of his from the Quaker boarding school Westtown Friends School in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  They began to arrive on Friday and the last departed before lunch today.  We cooked, they brought lots of wine and champagne, and last night we went out to one of our favorite places, Newick's in the town of Dover, just north of Portsmouth, NH.

Newick's overlooks The Great Bay, what in Europe would be called a fjord.  It extends inland northwest from Portsmouth Harbor, then turns sharply southward and widens into a large bay, fed by many rivers and creeks draining into it from all directions.  During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, Great Bay and its rivers were New Hampshire's version of New York's Erie Canal, a conduit for materials and finished goods from the coast to inland cities and towns.

Newick's sits on the shore where red Route 4 and Yellow Route 16 come together a third of the way down from the top, just a bit left of center.  It's a no-frills kind of fish house: long tables covered in checked plastic table cloths, walls of windows looking south and west over lovely Bay views, and 650 seats.  The fish is fresh off the boats; prices are very reasonable unless you want lobster which is pricey everywhere.  I'm especially fond of their extra thick seafood chowder, fried oysters and steamed clams.  Service is excellent.

In the heyday of freight transportation by water, the stretch of the Bay Newick's overlooks would have carried lots of gundalows, specially designed flagt bottomed, shallow-draft river freighters descended from Dutch freight scows.  With a hinged mast to allow them under low bridges and a capacity of 50 tons, the 19 foot wide, up to 70 ft. long gundalows were the aquatic 18 wheelers of their era.

Railroads with their greater speed and longer range eventually ended the reign of the gundalow as the preferred freight transport.  These days there are once again gundalows in Portsmouth Harbor, Great Bay and on the Pisscataqua River, carefully researched and extremely authentic reproductions owned and operated by The Gundalow Company out of Portsmouth.  Used as teaching tools and as centerpieces of various activities on the water.  A couple of years ago we were supposed to have heard Handle's Water Music on a gundalow in the Harbor.  Unfortunately, the weather was iffy and the event was moved indoors on shore.


The hot (in several senses), hunky German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is featured on a recent CD of arias from the impassioned Verismo school of Italian opera.  Reviewer Zachary Woolfe in the New York Times gave the CD high marks, with a couple of reservations like this one:

"the larger problem with the disc is simply that an hour of nonstop masculinity gets a little exhausting. It turns out there’s only so much virility one can take." 

Well perhaps, but not in some of the circles in which I travel!"

Saturday, April 09, 2011


This is the weekend we've been waiting for -- the first of the many thousands of daffodils that surround Fritz's center have opened, and up here at the house, crocus are pushing up through the carpet of leaves.  The fall crop of lettuce, bok choi and spinach in the cold frame are flourishing and providing plenty of salads. 

The Symposium at Greenfield on French opera wound up on Wednesday.  It went very well, the crowd that attends being lively, highly literate and very interested in the little personal stories and tales so bizarre that they trump any fiction.  They've told me that they particularly like the bits of historical context that I have always used in my teaching to tie the art to the political and cultural conditions that fostered its creation.  I opened with a short explication of the Second Empire:

We begin with the great engine of French society in the last half of the 19th century, the Second Empire.  Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, lackluster nephew of THE Napoleon, blundered his way into the position of President of France and one day, on the chance nobody was looking, staged a coup d’etat, declared the return of Empire, with him and his exquisite wife Eugenie as Emperor and Empress. The French, thrilled at the prospect of the return of Imperial glory, approved wholeheartedly.

How many of you remember the Dot Com boom of the 1990s?  OK, now imagine 16 years of that, accompanied by an immense surge in confidence and creativity.  Imagine also all the self-indulgence that unlimited capital and credit, unencumbered by any sense of morality, can spawn – and you’ll have just scratched the surface.   

Paris became the City of Light with miles of gas lamps illuminating new grand boulevards; the massive new sewer system ended annual epidemics of cholera and became an unlikely international tourist attraction; the first planned industrial suburbs and the first department stores in the world were built; the great web of train track radiating from Paris to all of France and on to the rest of Europe was laid down.  The Suez Canal was dug and inaugurated by the Empress on the first ship to sail through; two World Expositions showed off France’s arts, sciences and industries; the Statue of Liberty was designed; the Emperor brokered Italian independence from Austria; the grand, glittering Salle Garnier, aka the Paris Opera was designed; and Les Grandes Horizontales, the fabulous courtesans who had emperors, tsars, kings, great financiers and industrialists kneeling at their feet, became the symbol of Paris as the world capital of l’amour.

English poet Wilfred Blunt captured it perfectly: “Paris! What magic lived for us in those two syllables!  What a picture they evoked of vanity and profane delights, of triumph in the world and the romance of pleasure!  How great, how terrible a name was hers, the fair imperial harlot of civilized humanity!”   Now, if an Englishmen could get THAT frenzied -- well, you can just imagine!

A suggestion was made at the end of the session that I do American opera next year, which Fritz suggested be enlarged to Opera in English; that would allow me to include  composers like Henry Purcell, Benjamin Britten and William Walton in the program.  I think I could have a lot of fun with that. 

For more on the Second Empire, during which some literally unbelievable things took place, I recommend John Bierman's  Napoleon III and his Carnival Empire.  Cardinal, 1990


A friend who is involved in the art scene in Manchester, NH sent me this notice of a creative new way to keep the downtown business areas of a city vital in hard economic times, as well as to promote the work of local artists of all kinds. 
White Flag Gallery, a pop-up fine arts venue, opens in Manchester
By Renee Mallet, Manchester Arts and Crafts Examiner April 4, 2011

Empty store fronts have become the norm, not just in downtown Manchester but in cities across the country. In an effort to curb these vacant store fronts from dragging down the businesses around them and to give small start-ups a chance to build a customer base many landlords and city councils are, more and more, turning to the idea of pop-up stores to help.

A pop-up store is when a business or group opens up a short term store in an otherwise empty space. Landlords love the idea because it not only gives them a small amount of revenue from a rental that otherwise would be sitting empty but it brings in people who might not otherwise view the space. Landlords hope that one of these customers will decide the location and space is right for their established enterprise and that they’ll end up a long term lease.  The advantage of a pop-up store for a small business or group is the short term use of a location without having to come up with first, last, and a security deposit- or having to make a long term commercial lease commitment.

The White Flag Gallery is Manchester’s first pop-up art gallery. The gallery will be hosting art exhibits, most often for just one night, in various locations around the city. Their first exhibit will be ‘The Big Takeover’, featuring work from artists around the area, for sale, for just one evening.
The White Flag Gallery is hoping their impromptu art nights will not only help local artists reach a wider audience but also help local landlords fill some of their empty spaces. The White Flag Gallery is Manchester’s first pop-up art gallery and ‘The Big Takeover’ exhibit is being sponsored by the Manchester Arts Commission and GoodGood Manchester.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Starr, very properly curled up on the throw that seems to have been made for her.  She's still alert, lively and great fun but she is getting to be an old lady cat -- 15 this year.

Fog this morning began a cold, clammy day.  I set a fire going in the living room wood stove after lunch.  I had to do a lot of writing on the computer and physical inactivity made me cool down.  There's something about wood stove heat that's deeply warming, a heat that envelops the body almost as if embracing it. 

I saw the first installment of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Wagner's Ring of the Niebelung last Saturday.  It's in the hands of Robert LePage and the Cirque du Soleil.  The foundation of the production is "The Machine," a 45 ton monster that required the MET to install several heavy steel I-beams under the stage last summer to support it.  It will be the basis for all four Ring operas.

The Machine's visible components are 24 "planks" on a central shaft that can rotate individually or work in concert with each other.  The shaft rises and lowers.  The number of variations seems infinite, particularly as projections, not still images, but moving images that are changeable, responding to the movement of the performers.  Singers  -- or their body doubles -- scramble up, down and over The Machine's surfaces, the more radical ascents and descents assisted by a cable hooked onto a harness concealed in the costume. 

The production has been criticized as having no particular interpretation, political viewpoint, or for being anything more than a dull walk-through of the traditional moves that date back generations.  That was also the criticism of the MET's previous RING whose sets and costumes were romantically realist storybook stuff, and that's true.  In fact not only was it true, the previous Ring production featured some very sloppy and undramatic direction. 

I saw one major careless bit of directing in this new Das Rheingold, in the scene above where the Goddess Freia is supposed to be covered completely in gold as ransom for her.  Nothing of her is to be visible, but the piling of the gold left her entire head and upper shoulders visible, making a mockery of the dramatic situation and the text of the opera.  But that was it, the rest was completely competent if not inspired and, when combined with the arresting visuals, was far preferable to the previous production.

The final tableau, the Gods entering the newly constructed palace/citadel of Valhalla, was almost breathtaking.  The production is technically complicated -- I imaging the technical rehearsals must have gone on for days -- and on some occasions, word has leaked out that some shift or other effect of The Machine has failed.  The performance on the Wednesday prior to mine was delayed almost a half hour due to set-up problems.  But at my performance everything went perfectly and the overall effect was overwhelming.

Wagner called for magic transformations and his music describes wonders taking place; I have seen almost a dozen Rings in whole or various parts, and these were beyond question the most magical transformations I have ever encountered on any stage.  The Machine creaks every now and then and the gripper soles on the singers' shoes tended to squeak audibly at times.  But at its best, and there was a fair amount of "best," it was breathtaking.

The singing was on a pretty high level.  It is becoming obvious that the heroic baritone roles in Wagner are not right for Bryn Terfel.  He sounded underpowered much of the time, all his low notes fading into inaudibility, but he was the only remotely weak link in a very accomplished cast authoritatively conducted by Fabio Luisi.  


Das Rheingold was the radio broadcast matinee.  I had dinner with my younger daughter and her fiance at the Shun Lee Café near Lincoln Center, a casual, very good Dim Sum dinner, and then went back to the MET for a very different opera, Rossini's delightful romp Le Comte Ory.  

There's not much plot to Ory.  On paper it's a kind of one joke tale of a randy philandering nobleman 
who tries to get himself and his buds into the castle where all the local wives have set up housekeeping while their husbands are away at the Crusades.  Eventually they breach the castle's defenses by disguising themselves a nuns on a pilgrimage caught in a severe storm and begging for shelter.   

Rossini's witty, inventive score keeps things from descending to the frat house level, but boys will be boys.  Director Bartlett Sher acknowledged the frank sexuality of the plot situations while also inventing with his cast some very smooth and funny bits of business.

The high point of the evening, was the bed scene for three, left to right: Countess Adele, owner of the Castle; Isolier, a young page to Count Ory who has the hots for Adele who, in turn, is very interested in having a young lover (Isolier, incidentally, is played by a woman); and finally, the count himself.  During an intricate comic trio, the three of them intertwined, crawled all over each other, and engaged in general mayhem without missing a note.

Rossini requires virtuoso singers and the MET delivered Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Florez, Joyce di Donato and Susanne Resmark, all in top form.  Pure joy!

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