Tuesday, August 27, 2013


What's up at the opera, Doc? Part Two

So, Fritz proposed the idea of an opera on Anne Hutchinson, about whom there is a large amount of prime documentation: the transcript of the civil trial that banished her; records of the religious trial that excommunicated her from the church and where she was attacked by her former mentor Reverend John Cotton ( “Your opinions fret like a gangrene and spread like a leprosy, and infect far and near, and will eat out the very bowels of religion”).  In addition, there were the personal journals of Governor Winthrop ("this American Jezebel . . .") and other ministers and people whose lives Anne had touched in one way or another.  This non-trial material was written many years after her death in some cases, but reveals a great deal about her, and the hatred, fear and anger she inspired in others. Although her words were quoted in many of those sources, nothing written by Anne herself is known to have survived. 

About 40% of what Intermezzo produces is newly commissioned work, usually for a one act, approximately one hour opera.  We realized early on that to convey the richness and variety of Anne's story we should keep the historical trial setting but collage the text from all available sources.  We were NOT writing a documentary but a vivid drama.  We began by writing a prose scenario of the action, and developed a unified plot.

We decided immediately not to write the work in what we called "Puritanese."  Playwright Arthur Miller had been strongly criticized for using stilted, pseudo-archaic language in The Crucible, his play about the Salem witch trials.  So we settled on modern English with a certain formality and just a few, thoroughly comprehensible 17th century turns of phrase to set the period tone. 

We also knew that the theological issues brought up at  the civil trial, while vitally important, would be largely incomprehensible to a modern audience (everything in Puritan Massachusetts included religion, even civil matters).  We didn't want a lot of talky exposition or having to tell half the story through the program notes.  We focused on just one of the major charges against her, that she downgraded the importance of the ministers by claiming that she and all people, men AND women, could hear the voice of God directly in their minds and hearts without a clergy to interpret it for them -- a MAJOR heresy.  We also emphasized her forwardness and independence as a woman that drove the ministers into a fury.      

Reaction to the scenario, and to the couple of scenes that we had written to give the company director, production director, and conductor a sense of our approach, was so positive that by the end of the evening, we were told that they now wanted a two act opera of around 80 minutes.  (Fritz: "Oh, s__t, now we have to write finales for TWO acts!").  

The resulting libretto is a trim, compact but detailed depiction of Anne's trial and banishment, after which she finds herself in a "theatrical space" where she wonders if her words and what she stood for will have any resonance into the future.  Out of the ether come men and women who were involved in various rights struggles -- Mary Dyer, Abigail Adams, Walt Whitman, Frederic Douglas, Harvey Milk, Rosa Parks.  They assure her that her struggle has been taken up through American history and that she has been an inspiration to them all.  A major ensemble grows out of their dialog and then settles down to just Anne standing victorious on stage saying "Anne Hutchinson is present!" not in defiance of a prejudiced court any more, but in triumph.

Friday, August 16, 2013


What's up at the opera, Doc? (unforgettable Warner Bros. cartoon starring Bugs Bunny) Part One

So, when I began my unintended but overlong hiatus from blogging in the spring, Fritz and I were in the final stages of a first draft full libretto for the new opera, Anne Hutchinson.  The premiere is set now for the weekend of January 25 & 26 and the company, Intermezzo: The New England Chamber Opera Series, decided to workshop the opera in the summer and fall to get some audience feedback and let all involved hear some of the music before having to go into rehearsal.

The opera takes place during Anne's two day trial in November of 1638 on overt charges of heresy and of holding weekly meetings in her home to subvert the power and reputation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony's ministers by discussing the previous Sunday's sermon and then giving her own take on various points on which she disagreed.  There was also a not so "sub" subtext which was that she refused to be the typical totally domestic, ideally compliant and subservient Puritan wife and mother.

Mother she was (15 pregnancies with an astonishing number of children surviving to adulthood for the era) but "subservient" was not in her vocabulary, given the education her minister father had given her which is estimated to have been virtually the equivalent of the one Queen Elizabeth I was given.  She and her husband Will had also worked out an equal partnership agreement for their marriage, which exposed him to some ridicule in the colony, and her to accusations of dominating him and leading him around by the nose.  At the trial, her forwardness was repeatedly thrown in her face as she repeatedly argued the Judge, Governor Winthrop, and the ministers to silence because she was smarter than the lot of them.

Now, trials can be dramatic dynamite on stage or in the movies, but they can also be too much of a one-note, fairly grim situation -- and Anne's was a very serious trial indeed.  We faced a couple of potentially major decisions: a)  do we base the libretto solely on the trial transcript, which has survived and is fascinating reading; b) do we use the language of the time, as fully revealed in the transcript in archaic terms and in torturous Jacobean syntax, as is; c) do we limit ourselves only to the trial, leaving the audience wondering how Anne got into the situation in which she, and we, find her as she answers Governor Winthrop's summons to the Court with a firm and defiant "Anne Hutchinson is present!"

To be continued.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


One more step toward a sculpture garden.

Fritz and I were in Maine in the very late spring.  He had a gig teaching Chisenbop, aka Korean finger math, at a small arts and educational center in the little town of Hope that is run by a former student of his.  Hope turned out to have much more to it than initially met the eye.  It has, for example,  become the home of two Asian elephants, rescued from circus life and the routine mistreatment that comes with that territory.  And it also boasts an extensive bagpipe studio and workshop belonging to the husband of the aforementioned former student.  He has invented devices that, when added to a bagpipe's drones, can extend their range.  In the relatively small world of the bagpipe in the U.S.,  this is huge. 

On our way to Hope, we had stopped for the night at the home of an old and dear friend of Fritz's who is always a pleasure to visit; before we went out to dinner, she said we must see the the local art association's exhibit and sale.  The work was in a very wide variety of media and of very good quality.  I was particularly struck by a number of small sculptures in granite carved in leaf and fern patterns.  They were small, 12 to 18 inches in height and elegant.  I remembered seeing a much larger, similar work outside the building and inquired if it was by the same sculptor and/or for sale.  
Leaf by Obadiah Buell.  4' tall, currently resting on a rolling dolley in front of the house.

The answer to both questions was yes.  For a long time I had wanted a tall piece for the garden and had been in contact with a local artist in carved wood to commission a piece from him.  After a year of hearing nothing from him, I looked at this simple but striking piece as something that would work well for us.  Of course, granite isn't carved wood and the weight issue had to be factored in.  With help from the staff, of the art center, Leaf was placed into the car, was paid for, and was mine.

Sculptor Obadiah Buell (above) grew up to granite at his family's quarry where he began carving at an early age.  I liked his work very much and knew exactly where I wanted it on the property, just where the division line is between the natural woods floor and the planted area south of, and downhill from the house.

I dug a shallow hole, shallow because the rock layer of our hillside is only about five inches below ground level in the area where I want the sculpture.  With help from Fritz's nephew Ron, holes were drilled down into the rock and rebar was hammered into them to completely anchor the cement base to the rock.  I had already built a pressure treated wooden form whose outside dimensions were the same as the dimensions of the sculpture's black stone base.  I had trimmed the bottom of the mold so that its top was completely level when it was placed on the rock bottom of the hole.

I mixed the cement and filled the box with it, being careful to make the top of the cement perfectly flat and even with the top of the mold.  After two days I settled the stone base gently on it and was happy to see that it proved to be completely level in all directions.

My idea, seen in preliminary form, is to have the sides of the wood mold faced with stone from our hillside that appear the minute we dig to plant anything.  Eventually, I want a natural stone flat-topped pyramid look.  Settling the sculpture onto the base will take at least four men, and we'll have the necessary number on Labor day weekend.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013


Opera Festival Weekend

Last weekend was my annual pilgrimage to Cooperstown, NY for the Glimmerglass Opera Festival (yes, Virginia, there is much more than the Baseball Hall of Fame to Cooperstown!)  It was my 21st annual trek, one to which I look forward avidly every year for the combination of beautiful rolling farm country filled with prosperous working farms, great antiquing, several fine museums and restored historic houses to visit, good restaurants, winding country roads to explore, and an intelligently planned opera program performed in extensively rehearsed productions cast with singers from established world-class stars to advanced, highly promising young talent.

The 900+ seat opera house (above, looking to the back of the auditorium) is informal, comfortable, designed to have excellent acoustics and sight lines -- and to be ventilated before the performance and during intermissions by sliding open the panels that make up the side walls of the theater.  The panels close to keep out noise and keep in sound from the stage and orchestra pit during the performance.

An Amish buggy on route 20 between the converted carriage house studio apartment where I stay in Richfield Springs and the Opera House on the shore of Otsego Lake.  The Amish are frequently seen throughout the area.

I have sometimes gone out alone, but usually with a friend or, as last year when Fritz decided to go with me.  He's not a big opera fan unless the works are sung in English (he prefers to hear the opera's text, not read it's translation via supertitles) and/or I happen to be the set designer.  Under the current directorship, one classic American musical is programmed each year in the original keys, voice ranges, and orchestration but without amplification.  It's a treat to hear what voices really sound like,  and listen to the voices and orchestra rather than being assaulted by them.

This year Fritz stayed home and I invited a blogger friend who had always wanted to go to Glimmerglass to join me.  He flew into Albany and I picked him up on my way westward from New Hampshire.

Mornings before the Saturday and Sunday performances I usually explore countryside and stop at a huge antique (the building and its contents) barn on four levels well outside of town, and he fell right into the routine with me.  We also did a walking tour of Cooperstown and, on Sunday morning, spent an hour and a half at the excellent Fennimore Museum (of the James Fennimore Cooper dynasty that looms large there).  The author of the Leatherstocking tales named the shimmering surface of Lake Otsego "the glimmerglass.")  There was a revealing special exhibit on the Wyeth family that went far beyond "Christina's World" and showed the current, youngest generation of Wyeth painters developing the family tradition in new directions. 

One of the more striking (non-Wyeth) paintings in the Fennimore is this moody rendering of the Kingfish Tower that rises from the bottom of the lake offshore, maybe a half mile from Cooperstown's marina.  The town is full of the standard postcard images of the tower bathed in sunlight and surrounded by sparkling water, but this brooding view suggested to me a medieval watchtower somewhere in a German or northern Italian lake.  The actual purpose of the Kingfish Tower was to increase boat rentals in the early 20th century by tourists who would see it from the shore and want to row out for a closer look.

The opera repertory this year, the 200th anniversary of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, in the order I saw them:

Verdi's early comedy Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day) which was a failure at its premiere but, with some judicious pruning of what were judged to be way too many repeats, made a charming evening performed as something between musical comedy and vaudeville.  The bulk of the cast was from the current Young Artists program, and of alumni from that program who are now getting established nationally. 

Lerner and Lowe's Camelot was the Saturday matinee.  The original production which I saw on Broadway had been staged for spectacle; every now and then six women in magnificent heraldic gowns with six foot long trains and wearing elaborate, tall headdresses would cross the stage just to get gasps of delight.  Glimmerglass's handsome and outstandingly sung, but restrained, production was focused on the interpersonal relationships and was deeply moving in its major scenes of love and loss.  Baritone David Pittsinger made a very fine Arthur, Andriana Churchman's lovely soprano was easily the equal of the legendary Julie Andrews, and Nathan Gunn was the handsome, smooth-voiced Lancelot.

David Lang's one hour a capella opera, The Little Match Girl Passion, was easily the most unusual piece on the stage this year.  Based on the rather grim Hans Christian Anderson story of a battered child sent out to sell matches on a cold winter night, who succumbs to cold and dies in a doorway, Lang's opera avoids any sentimentality.  References to Bach's St. Matthew Passion elevate her condition and death to a level that calls attention to the stoic, uncomplaining way the child accepts her fate and dies with a vision of heaven.  Four singers, two men and two women, sing the story as it is acted out, each of them also occasionally striking various percussion instruments that point up, but do not musically accompany, moments in the vocal narration.  At the request of the Festival, Lang expanded the work to include an introduction by a children's chorus, who also played a role in acting out the drama.  It was a fascinating production.

Match Girl was accompanied by a staged version of the Stabat Mater by Giovanni Pergolesi.  A hymn to the Virgin Mary on her grief over the death of her child it was sung by two altos, one female and one male, the astonishingly good countertenor Anthony Rolf Costanzo (who also danced seamlessly with the eight professional dancers) in an extremely beautiful and imaginative production.

Our weekend ended with Glimmerglass's second production ever of a Wagner opera, The Flying Dutchman (his early Das Liebesverbot based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure having been the first).  The most vocally demanding and dramatic of the summer's operas, Dutchman was excellently cast with Ryan McKinney whose rich bass-baritone never  faltered, Melody Moore who had all of Senta's high notes and all of her lyricism, Jay Hunter Morris, now the Metropolitan Opera's preferred Siegfried, and Peter Volpe as an excellent Daland.  The orchestra under John Keenan's direction, the stage production under Francesca Zambello's direction, and the splendid chorus (made up of all the members of the Young Artists Program) were all in synch for a superb rendition of the very German Romantic score.

As we packed up to leave Cooperstown, my companion gave me this in gratitude for luring him out of Newfoundland to a place he had wanted to go but had never been.  He knew of my having designed the church parables of Benjamin Britten and found this commemorative first day cover as a thank you gift.  I was delighted and very grateful--it now hangs in my studio with a couple of autographed singer pictures and a bit of the gold fringe from the curtain of the old Metropolitan Opera. 

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