Tuesday, August 28, 2012
All about History
AD885 Byzantine Empire: Emperor Basil I dies in a hunting accident; his belt is caught in the antlers of a deer and he is dragged 16 miles.
AD 897 Rome: The remains of Pope Formosus are exhumed and put on trial in the notorious trial known as the Cadaver Synod -- he is found to have been unworthy of the pontificate; Pope Stephen VI is imprisoned and strangled following the Cadaver Trial; Romanus is elected pope but is deposed`three months later; Theodore II is elected pope.
The book I just finished, Londinium: London in the Roman Empire, is the work of the late, eminent British historian John Morris. He died just short of the final edit which was completed by a student of his who also included the latest archaeological findings to keep the book as current as possible.
A study of the founding of London, its rise to become the grandest of the provincial capitals and its decline in the two centuries following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire would be interesting enough. Morris goes further and weaves throughout London's early story a remarkably clear, concise and detailed history of the Roman Empire itself, as well as its institutions that became the basis of British law and social organization. London, he declares, was unique from the beginning; other Roman provincial capitals developed from existing towns or cities but London was founded and planned specifically to be a great capital in a land that had never seen anything like it.
Morris begins by laying out the geography of Britain, where agriculture and hunting were possible or not, where early people traded and the routes they established to do so. When Augustus decreed the founding of London, those trade routes and fertile lands dictated the location of London, down to the placement of the first London Bridge across the Thames. Roman architects and engineers worked with their customary speed to build government buildings, water supply, temples, residential areas and military bases.
Just about all of it was destroyed in the amazingly successful rebellion led by Queen Boudicca in AD60. Roman London rose again, in stone rather than burnable timber and kept expanding and growing richer over the centuries.
I had no idea, for example, that the Romans had developed the technology for steam power. This enormous advance, and the invention by a Roman engineer of a construction crane that was stronger and easier to operate than anything else in existence, were rewarded handsomely by the Emperor -- and were then forbidden by him to be used on the basis that they would throw thousands of day laborers out of work.
One of many Roman villas excavated in England, all of which featured elegant mosaic floors that provided central heating by a hypocaust system underneath.
Morris closes with a brief but informative chapter on King Arthur and his reign after the final withdrawal of Roman government and military from Britannia. Unlike others who speculate on which tribal leader Arthur might have been, Morris presents Artorius, a Romanized Brit who made a great success, against considerable opposition, of reuniting Britannia and reestablishing Roman law. It all ended with his death in battle and the gradual fragmentation of Britannia into separate kingdoms that were prey to invasion and migration from Ireland, Francia and Denmark. But London survived and remained THE city in Great Britain to this day.
Londinium: London in the Roman Empire by John Morris (revised by Sarah Macready). © 1982 Paperback 2005 by Phoenix Books, London
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
I don't get as many comments as I used to. Sometimes I wonder if I have become boring or have perhaps occupied too much of niche with talk of the arts and history. Then, unexpectedly, I'll get a most welcome comment or two from a totally unknown reader and think, well OK, I have readers who really are out there.
I began a bit of a hunt this summer for bloggers who had dropped out of sight to see if they had come back to blogging as they had said they might in their farewell messages. These were people with whom I had great conversations that I came to value for their personal take on things, and from whom I learned a lot. And by a lot, I mean from the lives of men in their 80s with an enormous life perspective, and from men in their 20s who kept me connected to the pop culture and The New, which is very important to someone working in the arts with progressively younger and younger colleagues.
I found a former classical musician who left it all for the Law and settled in New York City (the connection between classical music/opera and Law is very strong, interestingly, in Germany where a large number of conductors and the great soprano Hildegard Behrens all had law degrees in addition to major music careers). I was particularly happy to rediscover a New Yorker I had followed from blog to blog years ago and from whom I had the recipe for what he called a "minimalist paella" that has become a staple of my dinner guest repertory. He's in Miami now, teaching (lucky students!) and wrote back saying he was happy to have been found.
There was a time before blogs or telegrams or phones or communications of any kind beyond the written word entrusted to a messenger (for the wealthy) or the postal service (for everyone). Writing letters was essential but also an art. People wrote extensively, kept the correspondence sent to them, and made copies of their own letters in reply. When they died, their correspondence was kept in the family, sometimes published if they'd been prominent in any way, or archived in a library to be accessible by researchers.
I began to think of blogs as the written letters of the modern world, self-archived at the blog site, including the responses of the blogger's correspondents. I know of several bloggers whose blogs have become the basis of books. As for research, when the history of the U.S. war in Iraq is written, I would be surprised if the blog of Salaam Pax weren't referenced, and the same is true for a number of international political and cultural blogs that have captured moments in history from personal involvement. These are prime source material, valuable documents.
Unfortunately, when a lot of the blogs that were important to me shut down, the only way to keep in touch with their writers was via Facebook where thoughts can't really be developed at length. Casual updating is easy, depth difficult or non-existent. Twitter is even more limited. I keep hearing that social media discourages, and may even eliminate, social contact. What I think it limits or even destroys is the expression and expansion of ideas.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Fritz is not an opera fan, a great theater fan but not opera. Last year, however, the festival began a new policy of performing three operas and one classic American musical that would be performed in the original orchestrations and keys, and with no amplification whatsoever. These musicals all require legitimate rather than pop-rock voices anyway, so an opera company that treats opera like theater is thoroughly appropriate. This summer, in addition to The Music Man, they were doing Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars, a play with music, so Fritz came for the two non-operas and I saw all four.
Before the Sunday matinee we visited Hyde Hall, an English-style manor house begun in 1817 that overlooks Otsego Lake (its famed tin-domed gate house, above). The Clark family that built it was distinguished by public service to the state of New York and included many colorful characters including one mistress of the house who was notorious for her flirtatious behavior with other men while being the mistress of the homeowner. A major party animal, she was known in winter for running her sleigh and full team of horses down the nine miles of the lake at any hint of a social function in Cooperstown. Coming into the 20th century, the Clarks lost one family head on the Titanic and welcomed home his traumatized family when the survivors finally landed in New York City.
I had first visited Hyde Hall ten years ago when some rooms still had debris in them and conditions for the visitor were raw to say the least. The progress has been amazing. I won't let be another ten years go by before I visit again
The performances were, in order:
Jean-Baptiste Lully's Armide, a seventeenth century opera-ballet in a sumptuous, gorgeously painted production that had come from Marie-Antoinette's opera house in Versailles. The singing and dancing were on a very high level; one outstanding singer-dancer, Curtis Sullivan, brought an electric erotic presence to the stage in his character, Hatred, dancing essentially naked and singing like a star.
Lost in the Stars, magnificently directed by Tazewell Thompson in a production shared with the Cape Town Opera, South Africa was a virtually perfect production in every way. The stand-out performance was exactly the one it needed to be -- the great Eric Owens as Stephen Kumalo, a clergyman who suffers the loss by hanging of his son in a country sharply divided by apartheid laws and the resulting strict social stratification by race.
The weekend ended with The Music Man. I saw its original production in New York with Robert Preston and Barbara Cook. Cooperstown native Dwayne Croft had starred in the musical while in high school; he is now an established international opera star with a career centered at the Metropolitan. His suave baritone was in great shape, as expected, but who knew he had the chops of a suave song and dance man? With a strong supporting cast and a production that looked to Grant Wood for its vision of life in 1940s (updated from 1912) America, it was a joyous end to our weekend.
Friday, August 10, 2012
Tuesday, August 07, 2012
Designerblog celebrates 9 years.
We spent the weekend with friends on the Rhode Island coast. Gary and Steve have a beach house in Westerly, one block from the beach and in walking distance of a reserve for birds surrounding a brackish water pond. There snowy white egrets and osprey nests. Like Fritz and me they both cook (very well) and like to explore. They'd suggested spending a day on Block Island, a place Fritz and I had always wanted to visit.
Friday, August 03, 2012
I begin and end my day reading in bed. I've never needed the classic eight hours of sleep to operate at a good, sustainable level of energy. For most of my life five to five and a half hours were all I needed; when I woke my mind would kick into gear and that was that. My parents frequently urged me to roll over and go back to sleep, but for me that meant rolling over and staring at the wall wide awake, so I began reading for an hour or so in the morning to get me to their normal get-up time.
Magazines play a big part in my reading. Eight or nine come into the house regularly. Opera News is one I've subscribed to since late in grammar school. It is denigrated by some ("Opera Snooze") as it doesn't traffic in the often unsubstantiated and bitchy gossip in which some opera lovers revel, but it keeps me up on trends in the profession, singers and their careers and, via international reviews, what's happening in production styles which is important to my work on stage and in lecturing.
The Historic New England magazine relates directly to my last post (the cover picture on the left is the working kitchen from Beauport, the house I spoke of and illustrated at length). Fritz and I value this area's historic architecture (including a great deal more than Historic New England manages). HNE is always filled with articles on the restoration and preservation techniques required to stabilize and preserve historic structures as well as biographical information on the houses and their various occupants over the centuries.
The Gay and Lesbian Review (formerly Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review) has become a great source for my other type of reading, biographies and books on history, specifically gay history that is now being published frequently enough to give a true picture of the gay life through the centuries. I also get at least enough, if not a great deal too much, academic gay theory from the articles -- things like we can't call people who loved members of their own sex before the 20th century gay or homosexual because those words didn't exist then. True enough, but psychiatric writing includes speculative diagnoses of schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder when writing about Roman Emperors and other historical figures and I'm quite sure those terms didn't exist thousands of years ago either. GLR generally has good, level-headed editorial comment and letters that are often highly controversial and that begin spirited dialog.
Smithsonian is one that Fritz has been subscribing to for many years and it's always full of things I love, particularly archaeology, an early interest of mine that has only deepened over the years. The scope of Smithsonian's interests is huge; of all the magazines that come into the house, it is the only one that can really not be classified. It resembles National Geographic in that way, always filled with surprise topics.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC) Bulletin is published quarterly. The first three issues of any year are devoted to one particular topic: a single artist, the jewelry of the Italian Renaissance, early Egyptian sculpture, etc., etc. The fourth issue is always devoted to the Museum's recent new acquisitions. The Bulletin comes as part and parcel of my annual Christmas gift from a cousin of mine and his wife. Each year, they give me a membership to the Museum that I use frequently for free entrance during my trips to NYC for performances and to purchase books and other gifts at a discount.
I have given up saving magazines. For decades, I saved Opera News and Fanfare which reviews classical, jazz, opera, ancient music, and a lot of totally unclassifiable music, all of which I am interested in. The result was that moving from residence to residence was a nightmarish job of packing and carrying heavy cartons up stairs and finding or making sufficient shelf space for storage. When I retired from MIT, and Fritz and I could finally live together, I bit the bullet hard and made up a huge recycling load. I only save selected issues of the Bulletin now when their subjects coincide with current or upcoming projects.
In truth I do miss Opera News on occasion when I'm researching my symposium presentations for Greenfield Community College, or when I was doing pre-performance talks for HD European opera presentations at the art theater in Exeter, NH. But most of the information can be reclaimed from archives on the web, so great is the amount of information available these days.
The Week is given to both of us each year at Christmas by the same cousin and wife. We appreciate having the stories and issues of the preceding week covered in excerpts from reporters and commentators of several different political and cultural biases for each topic. The Week also covers performing arts, recent books, current movies and television nation-wide.
The Advocate used to be a lot bigger but got absorbed by Out which is of
As to the books I read, many of them are connected to current projects, operas I'm designing, or titles that grab my interest. I support my reading habit by shopping for used books on Amazon. One of the joys of being self-employed is that after decades in a highly demanding profession, I am finally getting the chance I've always dreamed of to read as much as I want!
Wednesday, August 01, 2012
New England is the site of the oldest surviving wood frame houses in the U.S. in Dedham and Swampscott, Massachusetts; both date from 1637 and are among no fewer than 57 seventeenth century wood buildings, mostly residences but also a couple of churches/meeting houses, that survive in Massachusetts alone.
We both love visiting historic buildings (including a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright) but when I saw the antiquity of HNE's holdings, I said "Great! I love old things" to which Fritz replied without missing a beat, "Which is why you love me!"
None of the original interiors remained in the house except for one small and very primitive room on the second floor that had been the original master bedroom. All other rooms had been updated by the Pierces and the Littles and are seen now as they were in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The continuity of the Little family's ownership meant that a great amount of their furniture from a couple of generations is on view. One interesting feature of the house was a number of windows of various sizes in interior walls, designed to convey light from rooms with exterior windows to staircases and landings deep in the interior. We spent a couple of hours touring the house all the way up to the massive attic. We then lunched at a well-known fish restaurant in town overlooking the water and then headed south to our second tour of the day.
If the Spencer-Pierce-Little farm was "the real thing," Beauport (Le Beau Port was explorer Samuel de Champlain's name for Gloucester harbor), which began construction in 1907 and was expanded for several decades, is a great piece of artifice that speaks to the styles, tastes and pretenses of the first half of the 20th century, along with a generous helping of social history.
Sleeper had a taste for orientalia and a gift for recreating the American colonial period which was very popular at the time. The 100th anniversary of the American Revolution and the ongoing efforts to define the meaning, date and appropriate menu for Thanksgiving had created a vogue for Puritan Style beginning in the late 19th century.
The harbor shore along Eastern Point Boulevard became a gathering place for a bohemian crowd made up of young, wealthy bachelors, and a couple of equally young, wealthy unmarried women, along with frequent visits from the more unconventional members of Boston society. Among the leaders along with Henry Sleeper was his friend A. (for Abram) Piatt Andrew who built a lavish, if more conventionally decorated home named Red Roof two doors down from Beauport. It did have one oddity: a peep hole in the floor above the living room that allowed Andrew to see what guests were doing on the sofa below. " Gossip had it that often all the guests were men, their pastimes peculiar," a statement heavy with code for young gay men feeling free to be themselves in a semi-isolated community they more or less controlled.
When our tour was over, I felt sufficiently comfortable speaking with the young man who had been our witty and very informative guide, about the frequent presence of Isabella Stewart Gardner (of continuing interest to Fritz and me after having written the libretto of an opera on her life) at Beauport and some of those "peculiar" pastimes. Brightening right up, he took us to the small but interesting gift shop and showed us an extraordinary photograph of Isabella delightedly leading A. Piatt Andrew and another young man, both on all fours, around the garden on dog leashes while Henry Sleeper looked on in amusement.
Henry Sleeper worked with him as the U.S. Representative of the Field Service and its chief fund raiser, crisscrossing the Atlantic with funds and supplies and working directly with the French military, for which France awarded him the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor.
At various times in his life, Andrew was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Director of the U.S. Mint, Economics Professor at Harvard, and Massachusetts' Representative to the U.S. House. He died full of honors in 1936. Henry Sleeper died in 1934; Beauport was declared a National Historic Landmark on 2003.
During the idiotic and hysterical danger warnings from the opponents of the repeal of DADT, it might have been interesting to have the courageous actions of these two gay men read into the Congressional Record and given the publicity they deserve.