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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Eleanor Steber at 100

The soprano Eleanor Steber (1914-1990) looked like a Christmas tree.
I used to see  her at the New England Conservatory in Boston, her alma mater, where she taught and sang in the 1970s. Her gowns and her hairstyle would have made a drag queen blush.
The voice was mostly gone. The authority and artistry were intact.
She remained a great singer and a great musician, even with means diminished by age and energetic living.

Eleanor Steber 's 100th birthday is celebrated this week. Many have been the FB posts with snippets of favorites from her repertoire. Steber, born in Wheeling West Virginia, studied with William Whitney in Boston and went on to win the Metropolitan Opera auditions of the air. She made her Met debut in 1940 as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. Supporting roles were not for our Eleanor. Before long she was Bruno Walter's leading lady in Mozart operas. Eventually she was the Met's first Konstanze and Arabella. She created samuel Barber's Vanessa-after Callas and Sena Jurinac turned the role down-in 1958. By then, high living was beginning to catch up with her. But Seber showed was she was made of, and had a triumph in an opera she had a few weeks to learn.

Eleanor Steber was an American aritst devoted to American music. If one was not supposed to sing 20th century music in Carnegie Hall or the Met, nobody told Eleanor. Dimitri Mitropoulos accompanied her in  Krenek's Ballad of the Railroads. The critics hated it. The audience may have grumbled but Eleanor sold this spiky music. Learning and excelling in difficult new music was one of her trademarks. Steber introduced Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 Knoxville : Summer of 1915 and made it a classic. More importantly, her imprimatur on new works meant they were of quality and to be taken seriously.

That my parents and grandparents, who never set foot in an opera house in their lives, knew and loved Eleanor Steber was thanks to years of radio broadcasts. The Voice of Firestone broadcasts and later TV-became Eleanor's second home. She sang Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin and Carry Me Back to Ol' Virginny with the same voice and technique she used for Verdi, Mozart and Strauss. This was her signature tune to the end of her life:  If I Could Tell You was written by Idabelle Firestone, the boss's wife on the Firestone Hour. Everyone who appeared on this program was required to sing this. Steber made this treacle a classic.

Eventually the party life and a disastrous second marriage caught up with her. New York was losing interest. She was offered one last new opera, Alban's Berg's Wozzeck. "My bel canto soul cried out WHY?" the lady said. She was wonderful in the part-but it sent her packing.

The lady pulled herself together and turned to concerts and teaching. As the years went by and the voice
began to fade, personality and musicianship carried her through. She sang at New York's Continental Baths in the 1970s-a notorious appearance doing her little good-but continued to give recitals across the country. Her memoirs-worth seeking out-were published posthumously. Steber's was an American success story. That said, she was the first American soprano to sing at Bayreuth since Lillian Nordica. She sang in Vienna and toured the far east. She became an operatic pin up girl for the GIs. A party girl reputation sometimes caused her to be disrespected. For shame! Eleanor Steber was smart, beautiful and tough. Go listen to her recordings.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014


TWISTED  is a show.

I could get all snooty, but Twisted is a show. Three of our premiere arts ensembles, the COLUMBUS SYMPHONY, BALLET MET and OPERA COLUMBUS will take the stage of the Ohio Theater September 25-28. 

You need to be there.

Here's why. Each of the above named organizations have earned positive press nationally in the past several years. Through social media and certainly through the press. Ballet Met knocked 'em in aisles at the Joyce Theater in New York. Opera Columbus's rebirth has been celebrated in print. The Columbus symphony long ago proved they can play anything, anytime no matter who is music director. Conductor Peter Stafford Wilson leads three orchestras in two states but will home in Columbus to domin--er, conduct.  

Locally, there is  A LOT to celebrate. Twisted gives us the opportunity, while having a blast. Let's get over this prophet without honor nonsense. Three elements will be twisted together, at points of agreement and more excitingly at conflicting points. Peggy Kriha Dye runs the new Opera Columbus.  Some of us would pay good money just to look at her, (she sings, too) but I digress.

Edwaard Liang
Peggy Kriha Dye. Be still my heart

I have some involvement with this. I'm going to be keeping a blog-diary here as the process develops. First up, what happens when you get the leaders of three different arts organization in the same room?  Wars, strikes or at least a fair amount of hissy fits. That has not happened in Columbus, yet. Here in July we are at the exciting phase. Nobody is exhausted yet. They will be, but it will a good exhaustion.
These clips are samples from previous productions to get you salivating. Here's Peter Stafford Wilson:

At a meeting yesterday Ballet Met's Artistic Director Edwaard Liang explained in detail his vision for Carmen, La boheme, The Barber of Seville yadda yadda yadda. The singers will be integrated with the dancers of Ballet Met in several of the pieces. If you're familiar with these pieces you'll get a new perspective and a sexy spectacle. If not, you'll be especially enthralled. As an old hand, I 'm eager for Edwaard's take on Carmen!

Twisted. There will be favorite arias sung by wonderful local singers.
The only alarming news from yesterday is the need for me to report to Ballet Met to be measured for a costume! No Snickers bars can pass these lips until then.

The stage set up will be nothing like you've seen before. The Columbus Symphony plays the entire evening. Music from Wagner's Lohengrin and Britten's Peter Grimes will add passion to the evening. Peggy Kriha Dye has chosen the vocal selections and the singers. The 'farewell trio" from Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte is one of those moments you will remember from first hearing.
Come September the arts in Columbus will have an unprecedented extravaganza on one stage, the Ohio Theater. Chorus, orchestra, ballet and opera and me, somewhere. Look for the fat guy.

NEXT: Introducing our guest choreographers 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Perfectly Miserable and Whatever Happened to Lexington, Massachusetts?

Many years ago I had an enormous crush on a WASPY girl from Meriam Hill, so when I saw the book Perfectly Miserable, Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town by the similarly named Sarah Payne Stuart,  I was convinced this book was by my long lost  love. It isn't. No doubt my SS left Harvard and is a State Supreme Court Justice someplace warm.

Sarah Payne Stuart is an author whose previous book deconstructed her family, including the celebrated poet Robert Lowell, and his several forays into the nutty bin. The new book is about growing up, returning to and feeling from Concord Ma.
I couldn't put this book down. I'll probably read it again next week. It's that kind of book.

When you convene a bi -weekly book show on radio, publishers will send you their first born. I loved getting this is the mail. I hope to interview SPS for a future show. As long as this post doesn't get her wicked pissed off.

Concord was always a bucolic small town seemingly removed from the suburbia crowding around Rt. 2 West. Sudbury, Boxborough, Maynard and they were fine but Concord was special (Forget Lincoln MA. Nothing there through strict zoning laws but the old and the nouveau. No drug stores of 7-11s in Lincoln) The rich people lived in Concord. The penny candy store was not a faux creation but the real deal and the candy did cost a penny a piece. You could get Thanksgiving dinner at The Inn where real turkeys could be espied in the dining room. The place never saw a can of cranberry sauce. The streets were named Walden and the hospitals named Emerson and the Old North Bridge was a replica, yes-but it was constructed in 1800,  only because the actual bridge had been turned down by retreating Minute-Men (that meant soldiers back then) on April 19 1775.

I was born and raised in neighboring Lexington. We are closer to Boston and the feeling even fifty years ago was a tad more commercial. Concord has for 250 years cherished the adorable myth that the American Revolution began at the leafy North bridge. Everybody knows that the American Revolution actually began several hours earlier on the town green of Lexington. British  troops advancing on Concord were met by a rag tag bunch of guys who had spent the early morning hours mustering in and near the Buckman Tavern.* They were way outnumbered and maybe too stupefied to do anything else but shoot. It was a slaughter and the Brits ran triumphantly forward. I admit there was a real battle in Concord, but that was a continuation. Everyone knows the American Revolution began in Lexington, Massachusetts in the wee hours of April 19 1775.

Our two bedroom cape was closer to Arlington and a hefty  hike away from the Battle Green. Said green is
about 2 acres in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue, just past block after block on new brick store front done up to look old. The last time I drove through, about five years ago I thought you could die an old man trying to find a hardware store, but if you're hungry for Japanese cuisine you're all set.

The dry cleaner is hidden back of Mass Ave near the town parking lot, which was FREE in the 1960s. Two pharmacies are now upscale ice creameries ($4 a cone). There are of course Starbucks that continue to plague the land. My idea of tearoom chain meant the Pewter Pot Muffin House, long gone. I think there's a glass figurine shop there now. A muffin you can get along with your croissant and profiteroles up the street. Glass figurines you gotta shop for.

Back to Sarah Payne Stuart. She and I are the same age. She probably went to Concord Carlisle . She and her family-hubby makes documentary films, in that Concord or what?- the people who have PBS tattooed on their bottoms.** Three different houses bought and sold in Concord. The recession has them sliding down their wonderful house on Nashawtuc Hill into another 18th century colonial with an added wing.

I grew up in a 2 bedroom cape. My father was homeless for most of his childhood so to him this was paradise. My mother rolled her eyes, though she loved "my lovely Jewish neighbors."

Don't think it wasn't remarked upon at the Sodality or DAR meetings when a second synagogue opened in Lexington. That JC was Jewish made it okay, even if JC would probably tythe at Temple Emunah , bypassing Sacred Heart Parish. I'm just telling you how it was many years ago; I'm not saying its right (Jeez)

No longer a 2 bedroom cape!

With the plethora of high living occupying Lexington Center today-the packie with the parrot I think adjourned to Bedford St.-its weird reading of buying and selling houses in nearby Concord unless you run a hedge fund. Sarah Payne Stuart makes clear the financial highs and lows. Plenty of lows. Maxed out credit cards, nearby elderly parents and above all the re gentrification of a town and way of life that preferred worn out sneakers and tepid tea to $120 Nikes and that special Chardonnay. It's sad to think that gorgeous old houses, sufficiently ratty after years of living-in, are gutted for glistening McMansions. Same thing seems to be happening in Lexington. That little 2 bedroom cape my father so loved is long gone.  In fairness, its sale financed the Dutch Colonial I call home today in Ohio, for cash-thank you very much. The four room house next door is now a 6800 sq stunner that overflows a small wooded lot. Proportion gives way to money.

Of course these are sour grapes! That's what I can afford, in lieu of the Chardonnay!

*Full disclosure. I was fired from a volunteer job as a tour guide in Lexington for telling tourists the Minute Men were all shit-faced from a night at Buckman Tavern awaiting the crisp and presumably sober Brits. Screw 'em. We won the war, anyway. And I got great tips.

**I work for a PBS affiliate but  that doesn't count!

Thursday, May 22, 2014


OPERA PROJECT COLUMBUS presents Ruggero Leoncavallo's one-act opera PAGLIACCI (Clowns) at the Jewish Center of Columbus on Saturday, June 14 at 8 pm and Sunday the 15th at 3. More information on tickets from
Here's the cast:

Dione Bennett, Nedda

Brian Johnson, Tonio

Jeffrey Ambrosini, Silvio
Tim Culver, tenor

Benjamin Bunsold, Beppe

CANIO     Tim Culver
NEDDA    Dione Bennett
TONIO     Brian Johnson
BEPPE      Benjamin Bunsold
SILVIO     Jeffrey Ambrosini

Enrico Caruso as Canio
Alessandro Siciliani conducts. I'm the stage director. The conductor is responsible for what you hear. The stage director, for what you see.

PAGLIACCI  was first performed in 1892. It caught on immediately and was well established world wide by 1895. It reached the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1893, with Fernado di Lucia, Nellie Melba and Mario Ancona. The opera will always be linked to the great tenor Enrico Caruso, who 'owned' the part of Canio, the heartbroken and betrayed clown.

What follows is a diary I've been keeping through the preliminary meetings and rehearsals. Beginning in reverse chronological order

June 16, 2014

And so it goes and so it went. Two performances well attended, with VERY enthusiastic audiences. A few on stage/pit coordinated train wrecks did not prevent the audience from enjoying the opera. I worked with a splendid chorus. I got to work with adorable and feisty kids form the Columbus Children's Choir.I got to work with fabulous soloists: Tim, Dione, Brian, N Ben, Jeff. I had sad months ago it couldn't be done and they did it. Jared the lighting guy made the show look beautiful. Dione was overworked and underloved juggling many hats. I felt confusion as to my role once the orchestra got into the theater.
The etiquette is for the stage director to have equal input and to fashion the look of the stage and the blocks as s/he needs. I certainly was able to do this, but felt at times like tits on a bull.
A disagreement over mike placing could have been tetchy-well, it was a little. I do mikes for a living and know what I'm talking about but was overruled.
Heroes in this story: Alessandro Siciliani who made us gleeful slaves to Italian opera. Dione Bennett for making it happen and singing a splendid Nedda. Cristina Bendetti did EVERYTHING,  with patience and cheer. She is irreplaceable.

Not forgetting Ruggero Leonvavallo, whose splendid opera was entrusted to us. I hope he's smiling in heaven. On earth I'm tired but I am certainly smiling.

I hope Virgil Thomson's four Saints in Three Acts will be my next project:

But now I'm hearing Dialogues of the Carmelites

I am one lucky fella to have such opportunities with two very different and phenomenal works. This is a testament to the riches in the performing artists and performing arts audiences in Columbus, Ohio!

June 13 2014

Final dress rehearsal was last night. I think. There were some orchestral touches rehearsed with the singers, but we did get underway with just a few stops. Nothing defeats this cast and orchestra. The space doesn't work. Too tight, too restricted. I sat there thinking, : Jesus Mary and Joseph if I had a large proscenium the a pit what I would love to do for this show.  Given the circumstances the show looked and sounded wonderful. There was a lot of frustration and tension in the air, as befits production week. A few sad-seeming singers.. Level of professionalism was 105%.

The tempi bothered me. They great ritards, the slow pace of some of the transitional music. I'm sure this is because  Pagliacci is usually give n in a large space, so the extra time afforded by these tempi is needed. There hasn't been much adjustment for the staging. Rather the reverse. You need the extra time to cross a large stage. Here you don't and it looks blank.

Was this a wonderful experience for me? Yes, because of the work and the cast. It was especially true here that once we got into the theater with orchestra my role ended. It is not supposed to go this way, and it won't again.

And blah-blah-blah. It's a wonderful show and everyone should be proud. I am! Seriously.
Lucine Amara Nedda

Mario del Monaco Canio

For the record, here's a fantastic Met broadcast of Pagliacci from 1959. Mario del Monaco, Lucine Amara, Leonard Warren, Charles Anthony, Mario Sereni.' I've been playing phone tag with 89 year old Lucine Amara. I wanted to ask her about this production and how it was prepared. I'll keep trying.


June 11 11 pm

We ran most of the opera tonight, in chunks, with the bedecked wagon and pros. It was foolish to begin with the orchestra when the little kids were getting sleepy. We should have worked with staging the choral scenes firs and sent the kids home. They are cheerful and  sweet. And a lot of yawning on stage.

I was given the gift of three stage hands: pleasant and responsible lads who are willing to help how they can. They marked sets for me. They carried furniture and made themselves useful. We all did the best we could in the final design of orchestra and opera sharing one stage. I won't do this again. It's a creative challenge and I'm running out of this kind of creativity.

Once an opera is in the hands of the conductor the stage director fades away. That's a big ass fade for my big ass, and I'm not the fade away type. For as much as we ran tonight it was suggested I position the playing area differently and it was a good idea. Chorus completely professional. My soloists seemed tired and discouraged. They are in "must always watch the conductor" mode, meaning they can't interact and could miss the audience!

Final dress tomorrow  night. I imagine it won't be much different than tonight. First performances tend to function as dress rehearsals. The difference is the audience. Having a theater filled with people beefs up the dynamic, increases the tension and helps a performance to 'pour'. At least I hope it does. We still have a lot of blank faces on stage.

June 11 2014

The best laid plans. It was an indeed an orchestra rehearsal last night, with little for me to do in the theater. Backstage I did a bit to help the peerless  Cristina Benedetti build a mini theater to be held aloft on our onstage cart. There's a canopy, with a cheesy stage backdrop to roll down, and some curtains. The perfect  down and out conveyance for traveling clowns and actors in 19th century Italy. So okay, the actual pieces of this contraption are early-swimming pool blue, but I'm promised some stage dressing. Let me shut  up. I know it will be great I know it will be great I know it will be great......I hope I misread a late night e mail about "tomorrow's rehearsal" written as if to suggest another all orchestra no staging outing. I've decided I misread it. God knows any orchestra needs several rehearsal alone, and the music only with chorus and singers. We don't have that. There was one tantrum last night, not mine. Still, there seems to be endless you can't move here, JoeBlow can't come to rehearsal til 8 pm; the children can't work more than one hour. Don't bring potato chips into the hall...

I was asked about my process. Don't fall into the pit. That's my process. I keep thinking on my favorite AA motto: If your ass falls off, put it into a paper bag and take it to a meeting. That's going to be my epitaph.

Our singers and chorus continue to impress, excite and amaze. Every time I open the score to Pagliacci I am more and more impressed, and I learn more about the score, about opera and about drama. Leoncavallo wrote many operas but only this one survives. I know a few of the others. They don't have the musical creativity. Except for Zaza and maybe La boheme, they are predictable and dull.
I was interested to learn tat Leoncavallo wrote film scores for the silents around WWI. He wrote operettas as well, tho I've heard none of them. He doesn't strike me as the charming type.

I have no idea what is going to happen at tonight's rehearsal. Stay tuned.

Alessandro Siciliani, conductor

June 10 2014

Last night was our first night in the theater. It may not really count since the orchestra was not with us, and we may have used parts of the stage to which we will have no access. We share the stage with the orchestras. There's no viable bit. Remember the wagon I hope to use as a centerpiece? Well it worked okay...I'm promised tonight there's be a fake wall device complete with backdrops and curtain. That's fine  except the comedy will take place a good 10 feet downstage form the wagon, which will  not be able to function as a stage. We had some bunching up and traffic jam issues with folk. The commedia especially has to be moved around. Our wonder Ryan Behan played form a clavinova on a rickety stand. He made do with me shouting STOP ever ten bars. We did one stumble through of the complete opera and one run,.

Last night we had everybody. Chorus, children, principals and props. The kids needed a juice and Frito break mid way. I did too, but did without.  The rehearsal was to begin at 6.30 and at 6.40 we were short several people. I was getting pissy, but kept it to myself in respect for this unpaid but loved company. Eventually we got started. Nedda nearly off book. Canio , Tonio Beppe and Silvio at full strength. Beppe showing a nice character. Tonio is very powerful just standing still, even when he is not singing. Canio's voice, I'm telling you, is big time.

Just had a message that tonight's rehearsal will be a sitzprobe. That means music only, with orchestra. I had asked last night if such a rehearsal was planned and was told no. I knew pretty well THAT would change. May or may not be time to tweak staging. I'd rather they have the sitz. Make the musical mistakes tonight, not on Saturday and Sunday.

Here's a bit from the Italian baritone Mario Ancona, who created the role of Tonio in New York:

The world premiere cast starred French baritone Victor Maurel as Tonio. He had been Verdi's choice for both Iago and Falstaff. Maurel was a splendid looking man who was known to be a powerful actor.

Victor Maurel, Verdi's favorite and the first Tonio in Pagliacci

June 9 2014

Tonight we met Silvio for the first time. He is as my mother and aunts up in Boston would have described him, "Quite the drinka watah." He's tall and good looking with a fine voice. Like most of the cast he has done is role before,. That's good with rehearsal time being limited. Silvio and Nedda have one scene together. Musically it is the most lyrical part of the opera. Meaning you can hum along, and it sounds like the hot and romantic scene it is meant to be. Nedda is the abused wife of Canio the head clown. She is in a violent and loveless marriage. Silvio is a camp follower who follows Nedda as she goes form miserable town to miserable town. They live for their few and brief moments together. In the opera, their meeting leads to a quick decision to run away together. A sta notte e per sempre tua saro. Until tonight, when I shall be yours forever.

I had expected a lot of crazy nooky for the staging of this scene. Horizontal action, intense coupling while the music surges away. A few problems: When was the last time you sang Italian opera out loud while intense coupling? Even so, if you are onstage and horizontal most of the audience will not be able to see you. And two the singers, in ecstasy or not, will be unable to see the conductor. Since our Silvio is tall it makes a nice stage picture for Nedda to sing in his arms, first cozied up to his chest, then on their knees facing one another, then cuddling on the floor but vertical enough to be seen and heard while appearing to be, well, interested in each other.

Yesterday's rehearsal tuned out to be more music than staging. But my Nedda and Silvio are pros and we got the job done-the staging I mean-nicely.

We had time to work on the commedia.  Beppe has a lot to do in keeping order. I have  him doing more traffic cop stuff than I'd like. Something to work on.

June 8 2014

First day with the chorus and the children and full company except Silvio. We have a good rehearsal space at Capital University.     The kids arrived with their teacher. Much younger than I expected, first and second graders. They are all adorable. One little girl has killer red hair.
Three small boys are excited  about the stag business I have given them. They are all part of a children's choir but are not singing. Too much at once I expect. I don't need them to sing as much as I need them on stage. They are terrific so far. I did ask their teacher, Do these kids know what this opera is? Adultery, murder, abuse? Murder three feet from them. Do they? The teacher went pale. Kids and I circled up on the floor while I did a G-rated edition of "Let's pretend."  Earlier I had, at my jocular best, assured one of the mothers I wouldn't swear. She replied, stone-faced, That would be appreciated. Bitch.    

Our rehearsal was pleasantly interrupted by a surprise birthday party for the maestro. The Opera Project Columbus board provided food and Mrs. Benedetti's orgasmic carrot cake. If I taste that cake after I die I 'll know I reached heaven.

Then we did a 'stumble' through of the entire opera without stopping except for the Silvio scene. We are getting there.


June 5 2014

 Ruggero Leoncavallo (1856-1919) was one of the composers of the verismo movement. In late 19th century Italy, literature and opera began to reflect every day life. The language was very direct. Instead of singing about murdering your mistresses husband for thirty minutes, you just sing 'He's dead" and then run him through. Thus versimo operas are short as operas go. They do not reflect escapist of pretty fare. They can be joyful but they are also very honest about the difficulties of day to day life. Pagliacci was Leoncavallo's only bona fide hit. His opera Zaza -based on a tale by Emile Zola-used was a vehicle for the drop-dead hot star Geraldine Farrar. Then there's La boheme. No, not that La boheme. Leoncavallo set another version of the Henri Murger novel, almost at the same time as Puccini's opera was breaking hearts everywhere. Leoncavallo's fine score was blasted into oblivion. Bad luck.

Geraldine Farrar as Zaza

You may remember the 'No more Rice Krispies" commercial that used 'Vesti la Giubba'

Yeah, funny. Canio is a clown by profession and a lonely insecure man. He knows his much younger wife does not love him. He is prone to jealous rages. Nedda has no life except ducking her husband's fist. But finally, errant wife or not, Canio has to put on the make up and get on with the show

June 1 2014

Met the chorus today. God bless our chorus director, Michael Lester. The chorus was one of my big BIG worries about this show. It's impossible I told the OPC board. You are not equipped to do Pagliacci. It may be a short opera, but this is a big and intense show. Chorus, children, principles, clowns , acrobats. Do the Barber of Seville instead and cast it completely locally. Do a Mozart opera. Nothin' doing. Its Canio and the traveling clowns. I'm in or I'm out. Sheepishly, I'm in.

The chorus is terrific. I am already in loved with them. We have a dozen singers in a score calling for four times as many but my guys SOUND like a huge and well schooled opera chorus. They are all well trained musicians and complete professionals. In today's rehearsal I had nothing but patience and good cheer from them. And wonderful singing. I guess if I'm doing my job right they'll hate me by production week.

Out Tonio was in today. He has a fine voice but he's an even better actor. You need that for Tonio. He is described as 'gobbo' lurido' -hunch back....lurid. Our Tonio is neither of these things. H I have asked him not to hunch over, not to play to any physical problems except a slight limp. More of a heavy, flat footed tread. He will sing the prologue straight out, like a concert aria. I have the cohru8s coming out onstage in a straight line, looking blank to the audience...and braking into character when the little trumpet announces t epaproach of te payers. It's my Brechitan moment (Ha!) or hinting at a 'fourth wall'.
The Jewish Center playing area is quite small. As with Gianni Schicchi last year, we'll have to use the entire house. I have Canio chasing Silvio down the aisles and through the auditorium. (I couldn't do it!)

The zampognari chorus is a musical highlight. I had nightmares of being asked to stage this opera without chorus. Who would want to miss this?

Staging this will be OK. In part two the chorus returns for the show at venti rte ore (11 pm)
I had them in a staley procession from the back of the house. Which, as our conductor pointed out, has nothing to do with the music. You can't have ea stately procession to words like "Presto!"  "Andiamo" So they rush up onto he stage-and fight over the few seats available. The kids will  get there first and get shooed off. There's plenty of jostling and time for a feel here and there (that is indicated by the music)

Working on this opera with an Ira lain conductor who had led Pagliacci at the Met and all over the world is an education. I despair of really grasping any opera not written in English. The nuances in Italian and especially in French are lost on non native speakers. Many directors insist that the words are the paramount
guide in staging an opera. I go with the music. I do not speak Italian fluently. In a well written opera, the music agrees with the words (if the word is 'fast' the music sounds fast)  I have been criticized for telling students, "The music will tell you what to do."

May 31 2014

Worked with the soloists today, or the three I've met thus far. Tonio and Silvio have yet to arrive. I threw my first tantrum when I realized how few rehearsals I will have with the entire company. People who know me well know that I need to throw a fit about something, swear I will never deal with these people again, simmer and rage and five minutes later take everyone to lunch. It doesn't last with me. Ask anyone at WOSU. Most of em giggle and walk away, knowing I will within a few minutes cheerfully fix whatever needs fixing. Usually.

Beppe becomes Harlequin

Nedda becomes Columbine

Nedda I knew had a marvelous voice. She's a sharp and sexy lady. Our Canio commutes from Kent Oh. and OH MY GOD. Why isn't this boy a star? What is he doing HERE? It it a major tenor voice with star making squillo. Squillo is an Italian term meaning ring. A tenor voice with a touch of metal that rings out. A voice like this is prized and its a helluva prize we got for this Pagliacci. I asked him ,as everyone does, why he isn't pursuing a career. Kids, mortgage, mowing the lawn, living a good life, singing and teaching a lot. A good answer and a good guy.

Everyone will fall in love with our Beppe. He's from a musical family. His sister once told me, Our entire family can sing Messiah around the kitchen table.    Beppe's serenade may be my favorite part of the opera. It's easy to stage. Just get outta the way and let the boy sing:

May 30 2014

Musica rehearsal at a lovely church in Gahanna. I don't think I've ever been to Gahanna. I was ready to groan about a long commute, but it was a piece of pasta. Easy. Even at this early juncture, I believe musically we will be more than alright

I'm hoping to use a 'wagon' for the Canio and the players. Bring it in to cheers of the opening chorus will be effective. Later the actors can hide behind it. It will contain the props, and Nedda will ride in, like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. I may be counting on this wagon too much. I have a staging plan B to do without it.. I think.

Our production will look like this:

May 25 2014

First visit to the Jewish Center since last year. Met boss-Jared as opposed to lighting guy-Jared. I was relieved to find the playing area larger than I remembered. We did Gianni Schicchi there last year. No chorus in this opera, but a large cast and a lot of hiding and back and forth. Last' year's main prop was a bed (I think more of a couch ultimately) This year I hope to have a wagon in which the company can be dragged on stage. Aha! The Jewish Center has a conveyance that may just work! I said again, oh the place is big enough, we'll be OK. Two members of the company rolled their eyes.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

This is why I don't shop for clothes

I have worked in radio for over twenty years and have dressed in thrift shop duds for years. Why spend the money? My weight fluctuates and nobody is going to see me anyway.

I have a couple of suits, cheap but passable. I was saving one for my wake. May  as well look as good as possible when you're dead. You don't want the relatives bitching. I came home one day to find my suit gone. It had gone to Goodwill. "You're being cremated", I was told.

The other day we went off to the local outlet store mall. They have a large Brooks Brothers outlet there so I thought what-the-hell. It's an outlet, meaning it'll be cheap. And it's Brooks Brothers. I'm an old fashioned snob. To me, Brooks Brothers was the Kennedys and the flagship store in Back Bay. Not that I had ever set foot in said emporium in my life. The only Kennedys I've seen have been at 12 step meetings and they weren't dressed fancy.

Nevertheless,  I could use a dark suit (for my funeral) I'm called on to do a lot of public speaking. A new suit wouldn't hurt.  Likewise I needed some dress shirts. The thrift store had kept me in 75 cent cast offs for a good while. But hell, what could it hurt to be a brand new dress shirt, from a designer label no less-my first in 25 years.                                                                                                                                              

I don't know from J. Crew or anyone else's crew. There was an outlet store for Tommy Hilfiger. Do I really want to buy a shirt from someone named Tommy? I walked through the Polo-Ralph Lauren shop: Shirts in colors I never thought possible,  all with that little guy on the horse logo. I was beginning to feel like the hapless schmuck who asked for Orange Juice at Starbuck's. Don't do that. "We have banana-papaya we have tangerine-grape we have lemongrass-cantaloupe, we have the detoxing papaya citrus with cinnamon apple and we have the cleansing prune whip." When I repeated a request for OJ I got a panicked stare from the counter. What do I call them now? Waitperson; Waitstaff; Barrista ---if its a guy wouldn't it be Barristo?  Are we in Barcelona or  Rte. 315 in Columbus, Ohio?

I digress.

Several stores, pretty names. No dark suits. No white shirts. No solid ties.

Then there's Brooks Brothers.

The first thing I see is a large window display for Brook s Brothers Nursing Bras. Say what? In my day, BB was a men's store. Still, with all this genome testing  you never now. Did I miss that men need nursing bras? Sure enough I walked in and found a beautiful well kept store with a large sections for Women's Apparel. That, boys and girls is how long its been since I've shopped for clothes. In my day BB was a men's store.

Still, there were lovely colors, a nice ambiance and a zaftig manager named Carol. She and I were the only zaftig people in the place. And she as the boss. Carol very graciously showed me the generous selection of men's shirts. Nice pastel colors,  but I don't want to be laid out in lime green or orangeade, thank you very much. Lots of purple. Lilac, or Concord grape, you name it they got it. I'm not interested in purple They had nothing in the way of a gray flannel or dark suit. Yes, I know its coming on summer but this is the outlet store.

I digress again: Back in the day I would just for shit and giggles wander into Bloomingdale's or Macy's.  Every sales person in those stores weighed 29 pounds and would spray you with perfume. You left craving doughnuts and smelling like a gardenia masking your grandmother's rosewater. At more than one such person I would yell "Eat something!!"

Tangerine, said Carol. No.
Lime green, yet.

Back to Brooks Bros. I did find some nice shirts. I figure hell, I'll drop thirty bucks a piece on a BB shirt. Think again (And you don't have to laugh. Remember I said radio...over twenty years...) The shirts were marked $69.00 At the OUTLET store. Carol assured me, we knock off another thirty percent. Thirty percent for taffy apple stripes, or 'sand'? (They call off white shirts sand) So its about fifty bucks per. As opposed to 75 cents at the Thrift, ok, kick in a few bucks for dry cleaning and I don't wander about in shirtsleeves anyway. In addition to a profession where  by definition I'm not seen, I have all my life run to avoirdupois. Oh, fuck it, I'm fat. Sometimes partly  lean, as befits a man of my age. Sometimes fat. Sometimes, now moving in the wrong direction from lean to fat again . I am also what was once kindly called "Chesty". Man boobs have long been a problem that the costliest shirt doesn't mask. So if they're gonna float around anyway, I may as well go cheap, know what I'm saying?

Clothes shopping didn't work for me. The day was redeemed by the BOSE outlet and a nice payment plan enabling me to bring home a bread box sized terrific sound system. The better to play my operas full blast while contemplating the raft of white dress shirts I picked up for $2.50  in toto.

Monday, March 31, 2014

At the Circus and Pagliacci

This circus did not look like this
Every year I'm invited to accompany bus loads of children from the Ohio school for the Blind as they go to the circus. The kids wear headsets and I narrate the circus to them. It's a wonderful exercise for me, finding a way to describe 'orange' or 'clown' or 'trapeze' to some of these kids who have never had sight.Others are developmentally disabled and blind. The trip is financed by some lovely people, retirees from what used to be the Bell System. I look forward to this every year.


Last Thursday was the day. I got to thinking as I sat there, doing my best to help the kids have  blast. This year the circus was both horribly loud and horrible horrible. I worry for any family paying good money to bring the kids to see such drek. They wheeled out some tigers-awful to see such magnificent animals in captivity-and there they sat three looking bored and were wheeled off. There was an elderly tired elephant with a stupid outfit. The acrobats posed and believe me they weren't much to look at. The clowns were relentless and truly stupid rather than being truly funny. The arena was filled with screaming kids happy to be out of school. My kids were bewildered. I did my best but this year especially it was so LOUD....

I've been asked to direct Leoncavallo's opera Pagliacci  ("Clowns")  this summer. Most of you know this story of the clown whose wife goes off with another man, breaking his heart. He snaps and kills the wife and her boyfriend, and this short opera ends with the line: La commedia e finita...The show's over.

I looked at these circus performers and I saw all the RVS in the covered parking lot and I thought what a truly awful life. Town to town in drafty arenas, sleeping a midst traffic, animals and poor plumbing, depending on fast food. Up close the acrobats and everyone else were tired, worn, and thin. There was  a desperation, esp. from ringmaster" who was on the point of hysteria. (Two of my kids were scared) I don't criticize these circus members, I feel badly for them. There was joy and no fun in anything. That's okay, its three shows a day and there's not enough money in the world to pay someone  to be chipper and agile all that time. But the gritted teeth and the boredom were obvious. There was a  lousy dad and kids bicycle act complete with a 4 year old girl and an 8 year old boy (approx) I wanted to kidnap. None had the energy to be entertaining, the the heart of them had died out long ago.

Paglicacci is the same. In the opera they are traveling players in Italy around 1890. Town to town in a covered wagon. Four people. An unhappily  married couple . A surly assistant and a younger man. Nedda is the only girl handy to the three other men. She is lusted after but not loved, and she lusts for another man, a camp follower. A production of Pagliacci needs to recognize the irony and bitterness in Leoncavallo's jaunty music. He tells us the truth at the very beginning of the opera: The author wants to present a slice of life, the tears she are not false, they are not pretend!

I've seen very sumptuous stagings of Pagliacci. Extras galore, children running every where, fire eaters, acrobats having nothing to do with the story. This is an opera about exhaustion and despair. Nedda's affair with Silvio is the one glimmer of hope for anyone. And ii doesn't happen. Dirt, noise, drama, boredom and never ending performing. Like what I saw last Thursday. No love, no joy. La commedia e finita!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

We Are Your Fathers: A Memoir of the 1980s

Nobody was dying in 1979. I made my way to New York in September of that year, ready to buy and sell the world. New York was just recovering from near bankruptcy in the 70s. There was a famous headline: Ford to NEW YORK: DROP DEAD, not the best of legacies for Gerald Ford. I knew nothing of this as I got off the train. Student loans were for the asking then, at 2% interest. The West Side YMCA (I know, I know but what did I know?) offered a room at Lincoln Center for $33.00 per week. Tickets were available for the matinee of Sweeney Todd, then a new show, and Broadway was buzzing about a new musical with a singing Eva Peron.

The Met was closed but the New York City Opera was across the street. Four bucks got you a seat for Faust, Tosca and Madam Butterfly with the likes of  Diana Soviero and Samuel Ramey.

The years went on. My first apartment on W. 93 cost $400.00 (a fortune!) for  four floor walk up studio. Its one beguiling feature, unappreciated by me, was a terrace overlooking an SRO. Usually in the wee hours there'd be someone sitting naked in one of the windows, singing. One guy sang Christmas Carols and yelled HEY GET UP!! IT'S CHRISTMAS! IT 'S PASSOVER! I know I had become a New Yorker when I thought nothing of walking out on to the "terrace" at 3 a.m. in my skivvies to yell  RAMON! SHUT THE FUCK UP!

But this isn't about the neighbors of the opera or school or anything much but AIDS. Nobody was dying in 1979 but by 1981 they sure were. A very young conductor named Tom got sick. He was on his way to a good career. He had himself a high powered agent and some fine gigs lined up. I never met him but his name was around. Someone to watch. A friend told me Tom has pneumonia. No one thought anything of it. A few weeks later another friend said Tom died! I remember thinking, back in the 1980s that it was unusual for a young person to die of pneumonia.  This illness was called The Old Man's Friend, since it took the very elderly gently. Tom was in his thirties.

The fear and the awareness wasn't on yet. Not full time. I just looked it up and find that Bill died in 1984. Was my level of awareness so small by that time that pneumonia was convincing? That's what the NY Times obit said: viral pneumonia. They wouldn't print AIDS as a cause of death nor would they acknowledge any same sex partnerships.

People began to stir when one young man, then another, one old man, then another began to die of pneumonia. People likened this to the polio epidemics of a time gone by. If you live in the periphery of the arts and artists you began to notice more and more pneumonia dead. Then it was called neuro-cystic pneumonia. I'm guessing by 1985 it was full-on. Everyone knew someone who was very sick with pneumonia and only gradually did it strike people as odd that people were dying of pneumonia in the1980s.

Then it was called GRID. Remember GRID?  Those of you for whom I am writing this weren't even born when we began to hear about GRID. GAY RELATED IMMUNE DEFICIENCY. This was what it was called after too many gay men (50? 60?) began to die of Kaposi's sarcoma. Up to his time KP had been rare. Now everyone knew the acronym GRID and knew KP didn't mean kitchen patrol. Kaposi's was the name of the lesions and  spots that would appear all over your body. Pneumocistic pneumonia was caused by a fungus growing the lung.

Then there was the wasting. Guys with spots on their face began to waste away. Their weight would drop to nothing. They would become skeletal and infirm. Couldn't hold food down. Hospitals were filled with guys on IV nourishment that wasn't helping them. The first AIDS ward I'm aware of was at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York (long gone) This was in the village, probably the epicenter of the virus in New York;. You had beds lined up with wasting men, their throats often lined with lesions that made it impossible to swallow. You got used to running into old friends on the street you hadn't seen in a while and find them emaciated and sick.

The city was slow to respond and the Reagan administration wasn't interested. It was a faggot disease. Better they all die off any way. Even when IV drug use caused the blood supply to be infected, and children died form AIDS via transfusion...Reagan  shrugged. Believe me,  elected officials did say publicly 'faggot disease, let 'em die". The New York Times would not use the words AIDS in obituaries. They would knot acknowledge domestic partnerships. Gay men died of pneumonia, and they were single. People were thrown out of their homes. Landlords kicked out anyone suspected of being gay. You could be a ruddy 200 pounder and out you would go. The law did very little to protect people, this in a city where tenant's rights went back to the depression.

The Gay community realized that no one was going to help them so they helped themselves. The Gay Men's Health Crisis grew from a desk an a typewriter to an enormous agency. I was one of hundreds of volunteers to work as a 'buddy' to a PWA (Person With Aids). You were company, did some errands, etc. One of my buddies was bedridden. It became obvious it was his mother who needed support. Check. Another was well enough to be out and about and I told him so. Communities sprung up not only to support the ill but 'the worried well'.

Here's a film called Parting Glances with Steve Buscemi that gives a good idea what that time was like:

The Catholic Church made patronizing remarks about God's mercy. Cardinal O'Connor, a villain to many went to hospitals to shake hands. But priests wouldn't give the sacraments to the dying. You deserve it was the very clear subtext. St. Patrick's Cathedral began to be occupied by ACT UP-a branch of the GMHC. People were scared and angry and were no longer willing to be powerless.

I remember the fear. People wouldn't shake hands. People wouldn't use swimming pools or public restrooms. When it became clear that AIDS was affecting primarily IV drug users and gay men, there was a tremendous backlash again the post-Stonewall generation. The Gay community policed itself well. I remember one quote, "There is one hundred percent awareness". But  a one night stand from a  few years ago could kill you today.The arts community was slowly and painfully decimated: Beverly Sills later said, "We lost an entire generation, as if we were at war". Governments help? Nada in the Reagan years. The Church: Nada.

My best friend died in 1986. He had been a bathhouse hound. Many people were, in the East Village or the Upper East Side. He seemed fine.  Then the diarrhea began and would not stop. No appetite, some wasting, exhaustion. His parents were very wealthy and well meaning. They insisted he had 'leukemia' or tuberculosis.
A few days after his death my phone rang at 5 a.m.Our graduate class had placed a memorial in the NY Times. The voice on the phone said, "You don't know me but I was a friend of -----. How did he die?" I remember being sleepy and annoyed. "He died of AIDS." I still remember the shock and panic in that person's voice as we hung up.

The panic seemed to have levelled off by the time I left New York in 1991. People forgot to be careful. I was hoping that ACT UP and GMHC and Safe Sex are for nostalgia buffs today, but it's not so. "Now more than ever". The new generation did not live through the horror, the wasting, the diarrhea, the spots, the rejections from (parents, friends, churches) the death. Maybe today people are less careful. DO NOT DO THIS. NO GLOVE NO LOVE. Protect yourelf and value your life, in memory of all of those who died.