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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Good Porgy and Bess or Bad Porgy and Bess

The Columbus Symphony is performing selections from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess this weekend. John DeMain conducts. He was in (superb) charge of the Sherwin M Goldman-Houston Grand Opera
production that ran on Broadway thirty years ago. As I recall, this production took the work very seriously as an opera. In New York, Porgy and Bess played in a large theater : the Gershwin, albeit named the Uris in those days, God bless us and spare us.

As I further recall, this massive revival was the first time many people had seen Porgy and Bess. I get the sense that the work was neglected since the early 1950s-when the Breen/Blevins production played Broadway (with Leontyne Price) and toured the world. The troupe's 1953 sojourn to the Soviet Union has been immortalized in Truman Capote's The Muses are Heard Worth reading.

George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Dubose Hayward
The Met waited until 1986. The Gershwin Estate demands an all black act. The Met complied.  Most of these Met debutantes were not heard again once Porgy and Bess closed. Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry introduced Porgy and Bess to the Met. Miss Bumbry said, "I don't really like the piece, but they were going to do it anyway, with or without me." Mr. Estes's take shows a resistance to (racial typecast) "I told them I could not come there unless I was given a different opera first."

And So I Sing:African American Divas in Opera and Concert by Rosalyn M. Story, goes into the trap Porgy and Bess can be for the African American artist.

A more recent Broadway revival featured the sublime Audra MacDonald, in a production reportedly heavily cut. No less that Stephen Sondheim wrote the to New York Times claiming desecration. I wasn't there.

Whats the problem? I can't imagine anyone arguing with the dramaturgy or the music. Nobody needed to tell George Gershwin how to write a tune. He may have been new to writing for the unamplified voice. That's a criteria I use to shuttle between opera and musical. Opera does not use mikes (I know, I know.) If you can't project over an orchestra into a big hall, you don't belong in opera. To my knowledge, the operatic experience of the original casts was limited, because they were black. Opportunities were not matching talent.,

Todd Duncan, the first Porgy,  and Anne Brown, who created Bess were classically trained singers. The world should have heard Duncan's Figaro, Escamillo and Rigoletto. He did have a berth at the New York City Opera, God bless them, but not approaching his talents. Ms. Brown settled in Norway, hoping Scandinavia would prove less restrictive to the career she deserved. Plus ca change. Marian Anderson was kept out of opera until the end of her career. It was impossible for anyone to ignore Leontyne Price's gifts, and soon the black artist was admired for voice, personality and presence, color be damned.

That was far from true when Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway in 1935. Would you believe it was a flop? No one knew what to do with the Gullah people of South Carolina and the drugs,sex and violence depicted to Gershwin's music. Dubose Hayward's novel Porgy had been widely admired. But that was a book and you could put it down. The stage was up close and personal,and Gershwin's tunes were haunting and a tad disturbing:

After all, George Gershwin on Broadway meant dancing, sophisticated melodies, gorgeous girls, dapper fellas and stories that got in nobody's way. What they got was drugs and violence, and the only booty on view was the title character's, described as a "no good liquor guzzling slut"

Then  there's the cast problem.  I know many fine singers who make a good living going from Porgy and Bess company to Porgy and Bess tour and back again. They sing in the chorus, they sing the leads. They sing all the time. And the more they stay, the firmer the doors to opera houses remain closed to them. They are typed as Broadway singers. Nobody thinks to ask them for Handel or Verdi. Other singers stay in just long enough. Some like the great Shirley Verrett stayed away. "I don't like what it says to my people" said Verrett.

Porgy and Bess has in the 21st century found a home in the opera house. The Goldman Houston production showed the way. A staging from Glyndebourne was filmed and widely admired. San Francisco and Chicago have staged Porgy and Bess, and the Met did two revivals.
The one great work in music about a black culture shows some spirit but a lot of decadence and suffering. It's a long show is Porgy and Bess.  It can clock in at four hours. And why is it always described as an American folk opera? So the music theater patrons are scared away? Because black artists don't sing opera? I hope all of these views are waaaaaay dated today.Go out and sing Porgy and Bess. It's a magnificent piece, worthy of the best talents. Just like Mozart, Verdi, Handel.....

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


There's been a nasty thread on a list- serv about the hosts of the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. It got me thinking. Here are some excerpts of my response:

Yes I'm sure everything is scripted. Scripted with the admonition to "sound spontaneous and friendly". 

On a live broadcast I never, ever use a script. If I don't know the material and don't know how to communicate with an audience, I shouldn't be there. That said, I do always write a script and have it handy. We are all human and mental blank outs happen. These shouldn't be at the expense of the listeners.

It is very difficult to find the balance between friendly and informative. I think you are born with this ability. I don't mind telling you I have it. I am not a good script reader but I'm fine talking to the audience about what they are going to hear...briefly and with a touch of humor.

Ms. Juntwait and Mr Siff were hired because they approach this balance. The Met has resolutely moved from the opera -reverence to opera as entertainment. This is not a bad thing. Broadcast media has been around nearly 100 has made everything available and made the previously formal...informal. 

It's been said that the old Metropolitan Opera was a carpenter's theater. The "new" Metropolitan Opera is an electrician's theater. And the  current Metropolitan Opera is a media theater. It's directorate comes from the media, not from opera management. It's marketing and broadcast producer staffs seem to have "new younger cooler audience" audience mandate. Stage directors and designers come from the theater. Robert Lepage's production of The Ring Cycle was nothing like what's ever been seen at the Met. Many people hated it, and the box office reportedly suffered. I wish there was one certain formula to attract this elusive new core audience. There isn't. But the Met is being re-branded as a cool/downtown kind of destination. Sometimes that doesn't translate into quality. The stories and the music are perfect starting points in selling-and they are often neglected.

One thing you can't fake on air is a genuine  love for the material. Ira Siff clearly loves opera and knows a great deal about it. Margaret Juntwait also loves opera and both retain a sense of wonder that is a great way of involving and audience.

I find the current tone of the Met broadcast hosts to be informative and fun. That's my opinion. I find the quiz an absolute disaster. I made one "gong show" reference too many and that's why I'm no longer there. Sour grapes, whatever. 

Alberta Masiello has been invoked. She was a brilliant and very kind woman who did not suffer all. She'd have no patience with today's broadcasts, but I'm convinced a Masiello hosted Met broadcast series would have a huge audience...and bodies for miles.

The word is Ms Juntwait has battled serious illness for years. That she's does so well is a tribute to her guts and professionalism. Don't blame her or Ira Siff if you dislike the broadcast hosts. They are doing as they are told. Sigh.

Greetings to all. 

PS Edward Downes used to write scripts for Milton Cross. Cross was once asked how much he knew about opera, and he replied, "Not a god damned thing!"

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Books Read in 2014

These are the books I read during 2014. I've noticed for myself that no non fiction books have been selected for the top five. There were good bios of David Dinkins, Barbara Stanwyck, The Nixons, and Mussolini! But I'm attracted less to facts and more to exquisite writing, and for that my choices were made.

Top favorites for 2014:

All the Light we Cannot See examines the connection between a blind girl and a young Nazi soldier in occupied France.

Redeployment  is a collection of stories of soldiering in the Iraq war. You are there and you are horrified and enthralled

Fourth of July Creek has a very creative premise: a social worker and an abandoned kid in the wild. 

Miriam Toews almost made suicide funny. All My Puny Sorrows has a woman emotionally entangled with her suicidal sister. 

Richard Ford, God love him, continues to make middle aged men moving and important.

Oh, one more, for me, indispensable:  

Virgil Thomson, Music Chronicles 1940-1954
Thomson was a fine composer and is the best writer on music I've encountered.  Funny, dry, nasty, concise and extremely learned.
Thanks to Tim Page for making this available.



*= a favorite
+=interviewed the author

Richard Ford. He's done it again with Let Me Be Frank With You


Russell Banks

*The Death of Santini   Pat Conroy

Exposed: Jodi Arias Jane Velez Mitchell

Mayor   David Dinkins
*My Reading Life Pat Conroy

My Beautiful World Sonia Sotomayor

Still Fooling Them Billy Crystal

Henry David Thoreau...Walden was worth reading.
Walden   Henry David Thoreau
Vicar of Christ Walter F. Murphy

Favorite Sons Robin Yocum

Song of the Spiderman Greg Berg

*The Essay   Robin Yocum
*The Fault in Our Stars John Greene       

Beach Music   Pat Conroy
Gone Girl Gillian Flynn

Barbara Stanwyck   Victoria Wilson

The Great Santini Pat Conroy

Doctor Sleep Stephen King

The Global Vatican Francis Rooney

The Queen’s Gambit Elizabeth Fremantle

This Road Will Take Us Closer to the Moon (stories) Linda McCullough Moore

*A Permanent Member of the Family (stories) Russell Banks+
(esp Big Dog)

Edmund White
Jack Holmes and his Friend Edmund White+

Mad As Hell (Network) Dave Itzikoff

The Soldier and the Spy (Dreyfus) Richard Harris

*David Copperfield Charles Dickens

Mussolini and the Pope David Kertzer

Pat and Dick (Nixon) Will Swift

Civil War Diaries Walt Whitman (in Specimen Days)

Living the Quaker Way Philip Gulley

Little Failure Gary Shteyngart

The Queen’s Bed Anna Whitlock

Fosse Sam Wasson

*The Husband’s Secret Liane Moriarty

The Burglary Betty Medsger

*Redeployment Phil Klay +

Mission at Nuremburg Tim Townsend

*Stoner John Williams

Faith   Jennifer Haigh (Boston, priests)

*Across the Bridge Mavis Gallant (stories rec. by Russell Bank)

Sum it Up Pat Summit

North of Boston Eliz. Elo
Tastemaker Carl Van Vechten and the Beginning of Modern
America --Edward White

*The Sweet Hereafter Russell Banks+

*Orfeo Robert Powers
*The Middle Men (stories) Jim Gavin

Leonardo and the Last Supper Ross King
Henderson the Rain King Saul Bellow

*The Condition Jennifer Haigh
The Days of Anna Madrigal Armistead Maupin

Deception  Phillip Roth
Suspicion Nation Lisa Bloom (Trayvon)

*Bring up the Bodies Hilary Mantel
**The Invention of Wings Sue Monk Kid

Escape From  Auschwitz Joel Rosenberg

*The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Samuel Clemens

Fatherland Robert Harris
The Windsor Faction D.J. Taylor
To Quell the Terror  William Bush

*Coal Black Horse Robert Olmstead (civil war, local author)

Newtown Matthew Lysiak

Divide: American Injustice in the Era of the Wealth Gap
Matt Taibbi

The Professor and the Housekeeper  Yoko Ogawa

You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz

A Time to Keep Silence Patrick Leigh Fermor

Perfectly Miserable, God, Guilt and Real Estate in a Small Town Sarah Payne Stuart

Cut Loose by Leah Vincent (left ultra-orthodox Jews)

Dominion CJ Sansom Nazi victory in WWII

The Hiltons J. Randy Taborirelli

The Good Pope-John XXIII Greg Tobin

What is Visible Kimberly Elkins (Laura Bridgman)

*Famous Writers I have Known Magnuson

Stokely Joseph E. Peniel

**Fourth of July Creek Henderson Smith

I said yes to everything Lee Grant+   
Lee Grant. Loved her.

*Unbroken Lauren Hillebrand

Play it Again Alan Rusbridger

*Blue Eyed Boy  Robert Timken (‘Nam vet, journalist, burns)

Hot Dogs and Cocktails (FDR/Royal Family) Peter Conradi

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour  Joshua Ferris

*Mr. Mercedes  Stephen King

Bleeding Edge Thomas Pynchon

The Long Loneliness Dorothy Day
The Alteration Kingsley Amis

The Good Luck of Right Now Matthew Quick (Richard Gere)
Shooting Straight Piers Morgan

*The Rosie Project (Asperger wife)-Prof Don Tillman

The Romanov Sisters  Helene Rappaport

*Remember Me Like This (Justin Campbell lost boy)
   Brett Anthony Johnston

Olivier  Phillip Ziegler

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin  Jill Lepore

Savage Harvest: The Search for Michael Rockefeller  Carl Hoffman

*The Undertaking  Audrey Magee

A Fighting Chance  Elizabeth Warren

The Chase Janet Evanovich+
1776 Revolutionary Summer  James Ellis

***Hold the Dark by William Giraldi

Big Little Lies  Liane Moriarty

Terrorist’s Son   Zak Efraim

*Barracuda  Christos Tsoikas

Easy Street (The hard way) Ron Perelman
Heft Liz Moore

War and Peace Tolstoy

*The Life and Tragic Death of Robert Peace  Jeff Hobbs
*The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher  Hilary Mantel

You Might Remember Me: Phil Hartman  Mike Rowe

Eve of Eternity  Ken Follett

The Mathematicians Shiva Stuart Rojszstater

The Good Father  Noah Hawley

*We are not Ourselves  Matthew Thomas
*Nora Webster Colm Toibin

The Job Janet Evanovich+ 
The Heist Janet Evanovich+
How I Write Janet Evanovich

Janet Evanovich. Had a blast interviewing her to a sold out house, thanks to The Thurber House

*Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill  Martin Duberman

Sisters of Treason Elizabeth Fremantle

Village of Silence: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France Caroline Moorehead

On the Edge  Edward St. Aubyn
Lost for Words Edward St Aubyn

City of Lies: Therean Ramita Navai

*****All the Light You Cannot See  Anthon Doerr

(Bob) Hope by Richard Zoglin

Without You There is No Us Suki Kim

*The Goldfinch Donna Tarrt

*The Children’s Act Ian McEwan

*All My Puny Sorrows Miriam Toews

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Is it a crime to be schizophrenic?

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Scott Panetti is scheduled to be executed in Texas tonight for the murder of his in laws. No one doubts that this crime was especially horrendous. Panetti held the older couple hostage along with his own wife and daughter. He shot his in laws to death, claiming the devil had ordered him to do so. He spared his daughter and former wife.

The crime occurred in 1992. Panetti was sentenced to death in 1995. Scott Panetti represented himself at trial. It is said his defense came down to incomprehensible rants. He called over 200 witnesses, among them Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy. The American Psychiatric Association is among the many signators on letters of clemency directed to Texas Governor Rick Perry.

On Monday the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole denied clemency is a 7-0 vote.

"This is a man who has been severely mentally ill since twelve years before the crime", said Ron Honberg of the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill. "It would be a travesty to proceed with this execution."

Joe and Amanda Alovrado murdered by Scott Panetti
Is Panetti a nice guy wrongly convicted? No. He's profoundly ill and and in his madness killed two people. He should not be enjoying the freedoms guaranteed tot he rest of us. He's a danger to himself and others.

What bothers me most, aside from the obvious assault on decency in executing a schizophrenic, as if he should be lamed for his own illness, is the rage that is nurtured in cases like these. Politicians want to be re elected. Thus in many communities they seem to be ignore clemency and decency in favor of death. The public is frightened and outraged by crime. The authorities demonize the mentally ill. They are easy targets and are used to further incite the public. Look what this monster did! Let's kill him! Yes! screams the electorate. There's no gray area, no consideration of brain disorders beyond anyone's control.

Remember, Panetti is not reported to have received medical care in those years prior to the murders. Medication yes. But how diligently was he treated? How extensive was his care? Unless he was independently wealthy, I'll be he got nothing but pills.

Why was Panetti allowed to defend himself? He dressed up in cowboy gear and battle fatigues, and he made absolutely no sense in court. Why was this allowed to continue? Was the prosecution qualified to claim Panetti was acting? He must be a very good and inexhaustible actor.

I worry too that all of the ACLU cries for justice are dismissed as liberal weak assed junk. I'll bet even Sister Helen Prejean is dissed in this manner. What's especially interesting in the Panetti case is the Evangelical community's support of clemency

As reported by Stephanie Mercimer in Mother Jones,

"[Panetti's] religious fervor is the product of a brain disorder, and the evangelicals' opposition to his execution is not related to his religious proclamations," wrote Mencimer. "It is more of a reflection of the shift in public attitudes regarding capital punishment that has been driven by the growing number of exonerations of death row inmates, the high number of mentally ill and disabled people sentenced to die, and the inefficient and expensive administration of capital punishment."

It is becoming too easy and too acceptable to kill people. God help us. They are coming after the profoundly mentally ill. Who's next?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Anita Cerquetti, an Introduction and a Rememberance

It would have been easy to label this post 'The Forgotten Prima Donna, but the fact is that soprano Anita Cerquetti has long been cherished by opera enthusiasts and record collectors. That says something for Cerquetti's art, since few of us heard her live. The lady retired in 1961 at the age of thirty and never sang in public again.

Anita Cerquetti died last week at her home in Rome, at the age of 83. She had surfaced in a few documentary films in recent years, a cheerful, hefty old lady who spoke intelligently and passionately, not about her career but about music, text, and singing.

Far from being a curiosity, Cerquetti had a fine career for the decade on the 1950s. Her debut at age 20, to her final appearances in 1961 had her singing all over Italy, South America and Europe. In the States she appeared with the Chicago Opera, and I believe there were concerts in New York and Philadelphia. This was a brief career, Euro-based. Of commercial recordings in the age of Tebaldi and Callas, there are only two: La Gioconda with Del Monaco, Simionato and Bastianni, and an aria recital.

The record companies weren't interested. The public was. Cerquetti excelled in the big Verdi girls: Aida, the Leonoras, Abigaille and Elena in I vespri Siciliani. Bellini's Norma was a specialty. Cerquetti it was who replaced Callas when that singer abandoned a run of Normas in Rome in 1958, to international fury  (de Gaulle and the President of Italy were in the audience. It was thought Callas 'walked out', thus insulting the heads of state, when in fact she was ill and simply could not sing)

Cerquetti was a big woman with an expressive face and a large, gleaming voice. There as a certain huskiness to the tone which helped give the voice originality. The tone was even thought the scale. Norma's rage was no problem for Cerquetti, nor was Norma's ecstasy. This was a huge talent with a very brief career. Why?

Cerquetti spent her life explaining her early retirement, and fighting off rumors from cancer to insanity. By 1961 she was tired. In an interview with Lanfranco Rasponi, she stated:

"When my father became hopelessly ill, I cancelled ll my performances so I could be with him, as I loved him with all my heart. After the shock of his death, my beloved  maestro Mario Rossini, to whom I owed everything, passed away. I kept postponing the signing of contracts, then I found myself pregnant. After the birth of my daughter Gioia, once more I could not make up my mind to resume. She needed love, attention and care, and who was going to give it to her with a mother always on the go?"

So she stopped. Raised her daughter and enjoyed her home and family. Interest in her singing never wavered. Cerquetti was always the source of rumor and musical journalists often rang the doorbell. Rasponi, in the aforementioned interview in the elate 1970s tell us, "At first Cerquetti was not eager to see me, but eventually received me in the most cordial manner."

Thanks to recorded broadcasts, we have complete performances of Aida, Norma, Ernani, I vespri Siciliani and Guglielmo Tell.  Cerquetti's singing is all over youtube. Her biggest hit is the aria O re dei cieli from Spontini's Agnese di Hohenstaufen. Get going.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Salve o Macbetto!

Verdi: Macbeth Live in hD from the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Fabio Luisi. With Zelko Lucic, Anna Netrebko, Joseph Calleja, Rene Pape.... Seen at Lenox AMC Columbus, October 11 2014


Today for the first time in years I missed my old life in New York. I romanticize those times, but a lot of it was fun, important and the memories irreplaceable.  My new York was still affordable to students. My New York is long gone. My old haunts, Tower Records among them, the  New York City Opera, Hot Woks Chinese, all long gone. Studio apartments rent for $5,000 a month if you can find them. They are not nice apartments. The working class and the creative class seem unwelcome. It's the very very rich and the very very poor.

I'm just home from seeing Verdi's Macbeth, as presented by the Met this afternoon. I wasn't there in person. I saw it on the big screen, live in HD.  It's a murky production, not much to look at, very dark and unimaginatively staged.

What the afternoon did have is what I remembered from the 1980s: buzz, excitement, blood, frisson. It was important, dramatic music theater and it was all about great voices. Anna Netrebko assigned her sex kitten  with a whip persona to a shattering and  glamorous Lady Macbeth. She sang the fearsome role....with no fear. She had guts and beauty and you could tell from Columbus Ohio that her energy burned through the Met. The  vanilla-ization of opera was no here to be seen today. The baritone Lucic is not much of an actor but oh my he sang. It 's a woody baritone voice, not intrinsically beautiful. But he sang the music beautifully, and like La Anna he sang with guts. Rene Pape, what splendid glamor casting for Banquo. There's a beautiful voice. Likewise Joesph Calleja -he brought line and class to a fine "Ah la paterna mano".

Noah Baetge! Remember that name. He's a big boy who sang Malcolm and will soon graduate to the big boy parts.

HD closeups of the Met chorus show that no one cheats at he acting and involvement, not for one moment. And the Met chorus sounded what like hat they are....the best in the world. Likewise of course the peerless orchestra. Fabio Luisi knows his Verdi ad knows that this is one of the most theatrical of composers. The music making was rich and detailed and flew by.

Why do I rave on so? Again, the buzz was back.  Opera became an Event once more. It wasn't pretty and it wasn't adorable and no one was skinny and it was ferocious and fantastic. The audience was stamping and roaring and screaming. That used to happen all the time in my day, when Sutherland, Price, Pavarotti,  Milnes, Domingo, Siepi were regulars. I was wondering what shows these days I would wait in line for. Well, this Macbeth for beginners.

Am I right? Did the guts come back today? I became very nostalgic for my days in New York (1978-1991)...Yeah it was the grad student cliche. Selling records at Barnes and Noble to keep me in ramen noodles, ketchup, three dollar bottles of wine and standing room tickets ($2).  In those pre-9/11 days you could sneak in sandwiches and beer and we'd picnic on the floor at intermissions. I know most of the ushers from my Opera Quiz days. They left us alone. After the show we'd all repair in the late evening to Tower to look at records (RECORDS) and arrogantly and joyfully rip to shreds what had been a splendid evening. Then you'd pair off if you were lucky or go home for another day if you weren't,

My life today is rich, full, exciting and filled with responsibility for which I am prepared. But it is good to remember an earlier time and to realize that those days gone by are creeping back.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Final dress rehearsal tonight.
God bless the Columbus symphony hear them sing the Mefistofele prologue is worth the price of admission. Kudos to them and Ronald Jenkins.

 (This video is dated but gives a few notes of the splendid CSO chorus)

This is going to be a hit.

I don't want to give the rest away.

I DO hope you will come to pre-performance talks with Edwaard Liang, Peggy Kriha Dye and Peter Stafford Wilson (and me!) one hour before each curtain on the 4th floor mezzanine of the Ohio Theater. I was asked to put these together several weeks ago. I'm delighted to comply, since these folks separately and together are the local taste makers and as you will see after each show, they are doing a superb job.

And there seems to be no promotion for these talks (ahem!) which is a shame. My guests always have interesting views and are smart and articulate in expressing them.

Me, I just try not to upset the horses.

In the middle of the night I got up to watch Janacek's From the House of the Dead. I told you I was off my meds! This opera based on Dostoevsky is something I have always wanted to direct. Janacek's searing opera is light years away from Twisted in style and in tone, but not in beauty.

I was told emphatically "Use the cards!" I wrote the narration for Twisted and will be delivering it from the stage. The occasional riff last night would, if I do say so prove a joy to the audience but "interrupts the flow". I'm not convinced but will cheerfully un riff. Nobody'ds fault that I need glasses to read the cards and find them cumbersome. My attempts at memorization have not been very successful. That I am urged to use cards is actually quite generous on the part of the producers. I will say on the record that I could be the Grampa of many of the artists on stage, and I once had great eyesight and a steel trap memory.

Them days are gone.
I love the staging of the Carmen Habanera, the Cenerentola, and he lovely treatment of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte. (The perfect opera, what else to say about a title that translates, "That's what they all do")
s a swing on stage. Years ago I saw a great soprano of some girth on a swing duringaAct I of something, and of course one night down on her fanny she went. (She's in heaven now) Never missed a note. THAT is a diva, boys and girls!