A weekend at Opera Theatre of St. Louis

I was in St. Louis this past weekend to attend three performances at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, founded in 1976 with a mission of performing standard as well as new and unusual works in English, with casts of young American singers.  The noted British stage director Colin Graham was the artistic director until just a few years ago, shortly before his death.  As a protege of Benjamin Britten, Graham was responsible for presenting many of Britten’s works in St. Louis, including the four-act version of Billy Budd and Gloriana (with Christine Brewer, in 2005, which was my first encounter with the company).

This season was typical, with Mozart’s Il Pastor Fido, Puccini’s La Boheme, Richard Strauss’s Salome, and John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, in a newly revised version designed for smaller opera theaters than the Metropolitan Opera, which commissioned the work and first performed it in 1991.  In the space of two days, I saw the Corigliano, Strauss and Puccini works.

La Boheme is Puccini’s weepy masterpiece.  I don’t feel like I’ve had a satisfying performance unless my eyes get moist at the end.  This was no exception, with a talented young cast that looked the part of the young Parisians.  The production was imaginative, funny and touching.

I had real reservations about Salome:  how would it work in a small theater the size of the Loretto-Hilton at Webster University, where Opera Theatre performs? The role Salome was being performed by Kelly Kaduce, a local favorite, having previously performed as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly and as the title character in David Carlson’s Anna Karenina (recently released on CD).  I am happy to report that she was not swallowed alive by the part itself or the orchestra.  (Strauss famously commented the role of Salome requires the body of a 16-year-old and the voice of Brunnhilde, a virtually impossible physical and vocal combination.)  Kelly Kaduce was convincing as the Judaean princess who falls in lust with John the Baptist and demands the Baptist’s head on a silver platter after Salome agrees to dance the “dance of the seven veils” for her pedophile step-father King Herod, while her mother, Herodias watches.  Kelly Kaduce’s voice rode the waves of the the orchestra sound, but she was also surprisingly intimate when necessary.  Just as La Boheme should make one weepy, Salome should make the audience feel like they should go out for a collective brisk walk at the end of Salome’s twenty-minute final scene in which she fondles and makes out with the severed head of John the Baptist.  (I’ve never before witnessed a severed head used as a sex toy.) Ms. Kaduce’s antics with the head make no secret that this is a horny, spoiled teenage girl who gets what she wants.  The whole opera had the necessary creepiness to be effective.  A word about the staging: the libretto (based on Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name, originally written in French, translated into German for the opera libretto, and here performed in English) calls for John the Baptist to be in a dark cistern below the stage floor.  The St. Louis theater does not have that capability, so the director Séan Curran and stage designer Bruno Schwengl, came up with an imaginative solution, a huge round plate at the back of the stage that is removed to reveal an iris-like aperture that opens and closes to reveal John the Baptist (and later to admit the executioner into the Baptist’s dungeon.)  Gregory Dahl was hunky and commanding vocally as John the Baptist (although, dressed in loin cloth, it was hard to disguise the fact that this desert prophet had not missed any meals.)  Michael Hayes and Maria Zifchak were effective as Herod and Herodias.  This was a very compelling and memorable afternoon of music theater.  Kelly Kaduce would likely never sing the role in a house as large as the Met, but she made a brilliant impression here.  When she was on the stage (which is most of the time) she was the center of attention.

My real reason for traveling to St. Louis was to see John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, which had received its first monumental production at the Met, directed by Colin Graham, in 1991, and for which no expense was spared, technically or musically.  It was revived once at the Met, appeared at the Chicago Lyric Opera and perhaps once in Europe, then fell off the map:  it was simply too expensive to produce.  The Met performers included such stars as Teresa Stratas and Renee Fleming, as well as many more (there are 25 named parts in the opera, plus a huge orchestra, large chorus, dancers, and more. The Met production used every bit of the Met’s enormous technical capability.)  The plot is far too complicated to tell here, but you can find it here.

The new revised performing edition, capably conducted by Brooklyn Philharmonic conductor Michael Christie, was a brilliant success.  The score reflects the three levels of the opera: atmospherics for the ghosts, including Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI and the playwright Beaumarchais, that inhabit Versailles; pseudo-Mozartian/Rossinian music for the “opera within an opera” that is presented for the Queen; and “realistic” music for the scenes that take place during the blending of time of the opera and the French revolution.  There are so many moments of extraordinary beauty:  Marie Antoinette’s phrase first set to the text “There once was a golden bird” which returns time and again, seeming to represent how the queen was caught up in events not of her choosing; Beaumarchais’s phrase “I risk my soul for you, Antonia”, in which he declares his love for the Queen; the comic music of Figaro, Rosina, Cherubino and the other characters of Beaumarchais’s “opera.”

The soprano Maria Kanyova was perfect as Marie Antoinette.  At first she almost seemed to be channeling Teresa Stratas, who originated the role. (I suspect, however, that this was more the fact of the vocal writing than any conscious attempt to sound like Stratas.)  Ms. Kanyova’s acting was impeccable.  At the end, when she is a tiny figure alone, center stage, reaching out her arms to be joined for eternity with her true love, the playwright Beaumarchais, it was a simple, but spine-tingling moment that I will carry with me for a long time.  It was an astonishing coup de théatre.

The character Beaumarchais is second only to Marie Antoinette in importance in the opera.  Baritone James Westman commanded his role in its many aspects, both musical and dramatic.  There was not a weak link in the entire huge cast.  The staging took advantage of the limitations of the small stage–all of the Met’s grandeur wasn’t necessary.  This new look at the opera made us examine the relationships among the characters.  I agree with critic Sarah Bryan Miller in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that this was a “must-see evening in the theater.”

My two experiences, separated by four years, confirm that opera is very alive and well in St. Louis.  The three performances that I attended were all sold out, and the company seems to have a strong fundraising community upon which to draw.  May they continue to thrive.

Seattle wind-down

I’m back in Cleveland after the five days in beautiful Seattle.  The weather was spectacular for the whole trip, even on the last day when the temperature got down to a more moderate low 70s.  On Friday I went back to the Seattle Public Library for their specialized architecture tour, and it was worth it.  The woman who conducted the tour was very knowledgeable and gave good explanations for  the design and engineering of the very complicated structure.  (She likened it to three shoeboxes set on top of each other, the middle one turned at right angles to the other, then with a towel draped over the whole thing.)  She also revealed that the structural and mechanical engineers who made the building work had also worked on the Gehry “Experience Music Project” building, and said that Rem Koolhaas’s library was more difficult.  The re-tour was worth the hour and a half.

I was also glad to have taken the ferry to Bainbridge Island on Thursday.  The ferry was relaxing, and the island is calm.  Nothing much to do but get picnic lunch at the grocery store, then sit by the marina and watch the boats and water, then walk around a bit and take the ferry back.

I had dinner on Friday evening with my niece Kristine and her boyfriend Bill. After Vietnamese food we had fresh strawberry shortcake made from organic berries that she had picked that day at the organic farm where she works.  Nothing like vine-ripened fresh strawberries!

The return red-eye flight was uneventful, although almost full.  But leaving at 11:00, the lights were dimmed almost immediately.  I had my usual situation of not being the least bit sleepy, so it meant that by 6:15 EDT when we arrived in Cleveland, I was really tired.

Imagine, then, my state when I got back to my house at 7:30 AM to discover that at some point during my trip the garage had been broken into.  Luckily the thieves did not get into the main part of the house, but my bicycle was stolen as well as a number of other small things.  So I called the police to make a report.  To their credit, the officer did arrive about ten minutes later.  Not much to be done, but it was an unpleasant end to what had been a fine trip.

I managed to get a couple hours of nap, but then had to top off the day playing for a memorial service for Phyllis Martien, one of my longtime church members who died while I was away.  The service was at the Judson Park retirement home, and there was no organ.  I had been requested to play Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” on the piano (a quite nice Boston instrument).  I didn’t have a piano transcription so (thank goodness for the Internet) I found a copy and downloaded it.

Bedtime couldn’t come soon enough.

I have to say that Seattle is quite a wonderful place to visit, but (unlike many people I know) I have no desire to live there.  Check one off the list.

Gehry vs. Koolhaas: signature architects in Seattle

My pilgrim’s progress as a Seattle tourist continues, and in the last couple of days I have visited to significant newish buildings by world renowned architects, both of which have made an impact on the cultural life of Seattle.  One is largely a success; the other is a chaotic mess.

On Tuesday I went to the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum in the Seattle Center, the former grounds of the 1962 World’s Fair and the home of the Seattle Space Needle.  The affair is a very rich man’s “folly”.  Paul Allen (one of the founders of Microsoft) has collected tens of millions of dollars of rock  and science fiction memorabilia, and, essentially, he needed a place to put it.  So he hired Frank Gehry (of Bilabo and Disney Concert Hall fame, not to mention the Peter B. Lewis Building at Case Western Reserve University) to build a structure to house it all.  The city of Seattle went along with it–who doesn’t want yet another major tourist attraction?  The building is typical Gehry, with undulating multicolored folds, like a pile of melting raspberry and lemon and cherry sorbet dumped on the street.  The inside is dark and cave-like, with no definable paths to anything, restrooms hidden, no clear entrance to the structure.  It is impossible to know directly how to get from one exhibit to another.  There is no “narrative structure” to either of the museums, which are in the same building.  (I finally had to ask a staff person how to get to the Science Fiction Museum, because there was no sign to tell me how to get there.)  The collections are fabulous–the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland ought to be green with envy to have some of the artifacts; but there is so much stuff, that it is overwhelming and overstimulating.  I finally just had to get out.  I can’t remember such an unpleasant museum experience.  And, unfortuately, it can be laid at the feet of Mr. Gehry.  It’s a quite wonderful architectural sculpture, but it is a horrific museum.

By contrast, the new central Seattle Public Library building, opened in 2005 and designed by Rem Koolhaas, is a triumph of light, space, practicality (with one notable exception) and rectolinearity, which is so important in a library.  From the outside the building looks anything but a rectangular building, but once you get inside, you can tell that it is and that it is just the “skin” of the building that’s at bizarre angles, which create the light and airiness of the reading spaces.  One of the most interesting innovations is the “book spiral” which contains the collection book stacks, all in one continuous ramp over 4 or 5 floors, which means that the collection can expand and contract as necessary, without needing to move from one floor to the next.  Specialist librarians are stationed on each level of the ramp, near the Dewey classifications of their specialty.    The only major miscalculation is the “red floor” which contains the library’s meeting rooms.  The entire space is various shades of fire-engine red: floor, walls, ceiling, with red light.  The walls are glossy and curved, and it is quite disorienting, and could be intolerable for a person with vertigo or visual impairment.  It is striking, but problematic.  The elevators and escalators are color-coded in highlighter yellow.  The interior structure is natural concrete, but with splashes of highly patterned carpeting to define spaces.  The exterior glass panels create wonderful natural light, which is so important in a city noted for its clouds and rain.  The building is an astonishing success. I spoke to several librarians, all of whom said that there are details of the building that could be better, but over all it works very well.

Would that Mr. Gehry’s wealthy patron fared so well.

(Photos to come on Flickr after my return to Cleveland.)

Seattle, day 1

I’m making my first trip to Seattle this week for some vacation away from Cleveland.  The five-hour non-stop from CLE to SEA was uneventful, though packed.  The weather in Seattle is unseasonably warm and sunny (a fact about which I am not complaining), with the high on Monday in the low 80s.  It did necessitate a trip to a very large Old Navy store to buy a couple of t-shirts, since I brought mostly cooler-weather clothes on this trip.

I’m staying at the Hotel Max, a boutique hotel on Stewart Street in downtown Seattle.  It is very chic, with art works lining the hallways.  It is newly decorated.  The rooms and bathrooms are quite small and put me in mind of a ship’s cabin in their compactness and efficiency.  They are beautifully appointed, however, with a “pillow menu” (do you want soft, medium, firm, U-neck, body pillow, etc?) and a “spiritual reading” menu.  No Gideon Bible for this establishment: if you want the Koran you can have it, as well as the bible, the Book of Mormon, the Torah, and a book on Scientology.  There are Aveda cosmetics in the bathroom.  I’m on the second floor, so there is a fair amount of street noise, but the reviews in Expedia had warned me, so I’m prepared with my earplugs.

I spent the afternoon exploring what may be the no. 1 tourist attraction in Seattle, the Pike Place Market, which reminds me in many respects of the West Side Market in Cleveland, but on steroids.  It is huge and on several level.  It is a little seedy (it has “character”), and there are some dodgy characters hanging around, but it is possible to find just about anything there, besides the de rigeur seafood, meat, produce and flowers, dairy and bakery.

My friend Walter Grodzik, originally from Cleveland, now on the faculty of Evergreen State University, picked me up for dinner about 6:30. On the way to dinner, Walter drove us to the Queen Anne area that overlooks Seattle, with a good view of the city.  It was even clear enough that I could see Mt. Ranier faintly in the distance.

We had dinner at Monsoon, in Capital Hill (what used to be Seattle’s main gay neighborhood, but now much more mixed). Monsoon is a “pan-Asian” restaurant.  Asian influence, but not strictly of any one cuisine, with also some French influence.  It was all excellent.  The most unusual thing that we had was fiddlehead ferns cooked in a light sauce with porcini mushrooms.  They were delicious, and the ferns were crispy.  We had a halibut dish and a lamb dish, both of which were beautifully seasoned and presented.

After dinner we went across the street to the Kingfish Cafe, a soul food restaurant, for dessert. I ordered red velvet cake, and Walter ordered peach crisp.  Well, as it turned out, we could almost have made a whole meal from the desserts-they were huge.  I ate less than half of the piece of cake and took the rest of it home with me.

Despite wanting to stay up to watch Conan O’Brien’s first night hosting the Tonight Show, my body was saying it was almost 2:30 AM EDT, so I finally cut my losses, put in the ear plugs and went to sleep.

Haymaking the old fashioned way

putting up hay at the Living History Farms
putting up hay at the Living History Farms

I was very excited to get to visit the Living History Farms in suburban Des Moines during my recent trip to Iowa, because they were having a demonstration of making hay using tools and techniques that would have been used about 1900.  Putting up hay is one of my most vivid memories of growing up on the farm:  my first “real” farm job was driving the tractor to pull the rope that lifted the bales of hay into the barn.  Later I worked up in the hay mow stacking bales.  It is surprising how similar the 1900 haymaking was to what I experienced in the 1960s.  I’ve posted the photos from my visit on Flickr.  Click on the image above to get there.

A Mini Adventure – Wheels – Autos – New York Times Blog

A Mini Adventure – Wheels – Autos – New York Times Blog


The New York Times “Wheels” blog on July 3rd had a post about “Minis on Top”, a rally of 225 Mini Coopers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  My own Mini always makes me go “Isn’t it cute?”, but that many of them takes cuteness to its automative limit.

As it happens, when I left work at the library yesterday, under my windshield wiper was a flyer for the Burning River Minis, a local group of Mini owners who meet up every second Saturday of the month.  I didn’t get it together to go today, but it would be fun sometime.

A Mini Adventure – Wheels – Autos – New York Times Blog

A Mini Adventure – Wheels – Autos – New York Times Blog


The New York Times “Wheels” blog on July 3rd had a post about “Minis on Top”, a rally of 225 Mini Coopers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  My own Mini always makes me go “Isn’t it cute?”, but that many of them takes cuteness to its automative limit.

As it happens, when I left work at the library yesterday, under my windshield wiper was a flyer for the Burning River Minis, a local group of Mini owners who meet up every second Saturday of the month.  I didn’t get it together to go today, but it would be fun sometime.


I was in Washington, DC, the beginning of the week visiting George and playing tourist. Among other things I visited the current special exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art, Dada and Cézanne in Provence. The Dada show featured many of the icons of the Dada movement in Europe and New York, including the famous Marcel Duchamp “renovation” of the Mona Lisa.

One of the most interesting features of the Dada exhibition was the partial performance of George Antheil’s notorious 1924 “Ballet mécanique,” for sixteen grand pianos, drums, airplane engines, sirens, whistles, xylophones. For decades after its composition it was thought impossible to perform, because of its great complexity of rhythm and noise. Behold, the era of MIDI enabled some scientists and musicians at MIT to program the entire piece into a computer to control the instruments. So we had 16 Gulbransen player pianos and all the rest controlled by Digital Performer running on a Macintosh PowerMac G5. Each weekday at 1:00 and 4:00 PM, the National Gallery offered a ten-minute segment of the ballet. I captured a small excerpt of it. And here is a link to Amazon.com’s listing for a commercial recording of the performance that was offered.

The Cézanne exhibition had a lot of famous paintings; but there were so many people (on a Tuesday morning!) that it was impossible to see them, so I didn’t spend much time.