Friday, November 07, 2008


Great lady, artist, mezzo -soprano Jane Struss sends this report of election night:


We were at a young friend's house, who is a community organizer, now at the Heller School at Brandeis and he had a projector with different stations screened on the wall. All the 20-somethings had gone...they didn't remember the awful election of 2000 when we went to bed thinking to wake up to President Gore and got something else instead. We weren't about to leave until McCain made his concession speech. So there were me and Rudy, both Davids, Hank and David's father (an Episcopal priest who is a riot...and he had brought a bottle of good whiskey and one of champagne for either eventuality. We ended up with the champagne, thank God, but we each had to try a little whiskey...I still can't stand the taste.) When they announced for Obama at 11:01 I started crying, as did everyone else, as we watched the crowds in Chicago and Jesse Jackson standing there with tears streaming down their cheeks and looking like he couldn't believe the miracle. I called my granddaughter Heidi in Utah, who had been so excited about the election and her first time voting and she was asleep! How innocent they are in a way, and how idealistic too. Then McCain's very gracious concession speech, then drove home to hear Obama's. A message on the machine from my 11 year old granddaughter Elizabeth: "Where are you Nona, Grandpa, he won, he WON!" This form an 11 year old in Flagstaff, AZ. Afterwards great noise from Harvard Square...apparently streets blocked off and everyone crowding into them. I sort of wish we'd gone down, or at least out to Mass. Ave. Rudy and I certainly didn't sleep much. Anyway, in the words of my student Abby Rockefeller (and she should know) "I took my first real breath in 40 years." It really is a new day when anything is possible (in the best sense). And in Michael Moore's words: "Wow! Wow!!"

Much love, Jane

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


I sent out an e mail to friends all over the country asking them how the voting process was going in their neighborhoods. I didn't ask for political affiliations and I tried hard not to proselytize. Here are some responses:


GROVE CITY, OHIO: We voted early, on Friday at 5:30 in the morning. The line was long and though no obvious electioneering was going on, I had a strong sense of Democratic leaning in the crowd. Not to mention we were among the color minority in line, which is an odd and yet appreciated experience having grown up in white middle class America.

NEW YORK CITY: Dirty trix. Voter fraud. Fascist chicanery. Let us pray. But to whom or what?

BROOKLINE, MA: No problems at all where I voted this morning: arrived at 9:20, was on my way to work 40 minutes later, which is the same amount of time it typically takes in my neighborhood. ....totally sick of paying attention to polls, commentators, etc.

TUCSON, AZ: I was at OSU for grad school in 1969-70 and was vice chair of the local chapter of the SDS, organizing a dozen bus loads of Buckeyes for the Vietnam moratorium in Washington, DC in Nov.'69....Arizona is actually in play for Obama. I voted early so avoided today's long lines. I'm a lawyer volunteering for Obama and I have had no calls today about any serious problem at the local polls.

CALIFORNIA: I had no wait when I went to vote between 3:30 and 4:00, actually had a choice of two booths. The line where I was to sign my name was more than halfway down the page and every name above mine was marked as having received a mail-in ballot. The state is expecting more than a million voters over the 2004 level. There was lots of sign waving on street corners as I went about my day...An article in today's paper is predicting tomorrow as the biggest "day after Christmas" letdown. The presents were more interesting before they were opened.

VIRGINIA: Thank you, Ohio. Virginia helped too, turning Blue for a nice change from its customary Red.

WEST CHESTER, PA: I did what the collective wisdom called for....waited for the poor bastards who have to commute to work to finish their early AM voting. I arrived at the polls five minutes before nine. I had peed...and brought a book, a tiny portable TV, my blackberry, bottled at er and a snack. I wore my most comfortable shoes, but left home the little fold up camp stool...that was a little to geek wimp. I was ready to vote! MY polling place is typical Chester Springs....located in a private country school. I had amazing parking karma...a young woman who was leaving told me the wait was two hours. She was appropriately dressed to stand in a long line with heels that would only be loved by a fan of "sex and the City". OUCH. But you had to give her credit, she voted and she wore her Dolce and Gabbanas.....Everyone i line was animated and uncharacteristically chatting with everyone and anyone as a long wait was anticipated. To my astonishment a poll worker came down the line to tell us that anyone whose name was between N and Z could move up to the right....My vote experience lasted all of ten minutes. I took my time to fill in EVERY vote and went over it three times to make sure my vote COUNTED with a SHOUT when it went through the scanner. My receipt was torn off the bottom of my vote and I took it in both hands like I had been handed the original copy of the Declaration of Independence.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK: I just learned that two members of my family voted for McCain and two didn't vote at all. I am horrified. HORRIFIEDDDDDDD!

WAYLAND, MA: Voted after the commuters, at ten. No lines in our leafy village, but a steady stream of people at the town building. All the UUs were out, singing sixties songs and marshaling the sign of these good Christian types tried to draft me into the UU choir, nothing doing buddy, my choir days are over.
We all awaited the arrival of local state senate hopeful, on Ms. Orozco, for whom we have worked and upon whom we have showered our largess. A greenie. No show. Phooey. I just realized I voted with my Obama button in plain sight which is against the law but I assume vote will count. Nobody wrestled it from my grandmotherly boozum....Not that voting Dem around here means much. But it was sooooooo satisfying to make my little Sharpie marks...Maybe I'll finally sleep tonight; hopefully after the long awaited dance in the streets.

WASHINGTON, D.C.: The war is over. We have overcome.

SEATTLE: I live in the bluest area of a cobalt blue city in a blue state.
This morning at 10 my son and I (my wife voted absentee) waited for 15 minutes to vote, something that has never happened to me in the 25 years I have been voting in the same precinct...I was upset about Barack's grandmother too. I thought she would hold on, as old people often do, until after the election. It must have been really painful for him, but as my assistant said maybe she thought she could do more good up there than in Hawaii.

MASSACHUSETTS: I voted at 7:30 AM, expecting a certainly wasn't empty but no lines. Since I can walk there, I was going to take the dog but at the last minute, thought better of it. Here in MA, we voted not to get rid of the state income tax, and to lighten the crime of marijuana possession and to ban greyhound racing. I'm all in favor of dogs, but I fear the animals will jut be shipped to a state where they have fewer retirement benefits...nothing is all that simple.

COLCHESTER, CONNECTICUT: Here on the street word is that the Irish guy is going to win here. No, not the Mac guy. O'Bama. Chances are, anyway. Double digit leads in the polls, and all....My wife and I, along with out 19 year old daughter, braved the epic lines at Colchester Town Hall to cast our ballots. There was one other dad-about-town approaching the front door as we arrived....he made a big deal about how there was no line to wait in. He'd been there since 6 and the line was ridiculous. Sue and I marked the appropriate ovals on the 8-1/2 x 11 card ($.025 each the registrars told us when Cait registered last month) and fed them through the scanner. We greeted friends and neighbors and waited for our college kid to complete her ballot. Taking a long time here, what's up? Oh, turns out the kid marked a couple of names on one of the major party lines and then realized that they were endorsed by third parties, and wished she had marked those ovals instead. Oh, well. Vote and learn. I walked out of Town Hall because my oldest kid had voted. My life has served a purpose.

CHEMNITZ, GERMANY: Enough of this e mail shit. I need a telephone number! Please send me yours!

Monday, November 03, 2008


Louis ("Studs") Terkel, broadcaster, oral historian, raconteur and Chicago fixture for over seventy years, died last Friday at the age of 96.
You can learn more about him from

In 2005 when he was promoting his book "And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey" I spoke to Studs Terkel. I was promised ten minutes and we went on for over half an hour. He was still quite young then, 93.
Our talk will be a podcast at shortly.

Meanwhile, here are
some written selections:


"I was an asthmatic little boy, eight years old when I was brought to live in Chicago in 1920. The smell of the stockyards cured my asthma right away."

In our talk, Mr. Terkel goes on to explain the 75 year love affair he had with Chicago. He made me want to move there.


"Every radio soap opera back in those days had three gangsters.
The bright one, the middle one and the dumb one. I was always the dumb one.
And I always died, just before the first commercial break...Later hey wanted us to wear tuxedos for the studio audience. You looked like a gangster going to his sister's wedding. But I became a disc jockey before the term was invented."


"Raisa! How does someone your age know Raisa? You are the first person your age to ask me about Rosa Raisa! What a great, magnificent voice. She was the greatest Norma ever, better than Callas....She loved to sing with Caruso. He invented the gramophone, you know. Any immigrant who could scrape together a quarter could buy a recording of Caruso singing 'Celeste Aida'....

NOTE: Rosa Raisa (1893-1963) born Raissa Burchstein in Poland. Dramatic soprano.
Prima donna of the Chicago Opera, 1915-1940. Puccini wrote the title role in his final opera, Turandot for her. She sang the premiere in Milan in 1926, two years after Puccini died. Although her career was international, Raisa, like Terkel, was a Chicago institution.


People want to know how to survive with dignity...remember I told you there was a machine that saved my life? And there's a machine that can destroy us all. And this is our choice. We live in a world of sanity. There's enough imagination in the human race to create this world that makes me, at ninety-three, live with a new kind of verve..."


This is the first election I've really looked forward to in a long time.
Here in Columbus, Ohio we are the blue dot dead center in a red state.
My neighborhood, zip codes 43202 and 43214, is the blue dot in the center of the blue dot. It's a very blue dot,so the pundits tell you.
I'd say the lawn signs on my street and to a few streets north are evenly divided.
Go one block south, and continue on for two miles and you are Obama Obama Obama. I refer to the neighborhood as our version of Cambridge, MA when it was funky.
Same gender households, university faculty, there's even a food co-op (with labor problems!). All we need are a few Hare Krishna.

We have lines upon lines of people are voting early. Part of me thinks that its a mistake to vote early. It is such a privilege in this country to vote that it doesn't have to be comfortable of convenient. On the other hand, if more people are voting, if its giving us a huge turn out, so be it.

We have a sign in our yard for a Republican candidate for state senator. I've gotten looks. Nothing more, just looks. Said candidate was very supportive of my daughter's school and came to visit immediately when asked. He was very open to talking about special needs kids and he listened carefully and respectfully. His opponent didn't respond to the invitation. So this guy gets my vote for office.

I hope to be at my polling place at 6 am and I'll hardly be the first in line.
Good luck to us all!


Music by John Adams
Libretto by
Peter Sellars

First performance: San Francisco Opera, September 1, 2005
In performance now at the Metropolitan Opera
Live HD transmission to cinemas world wide, Saturday November 8th at 1 PM EST.
For theater near you:

A New Englander named John Adams who writes operas might cause audiences some confusion. The composer John Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1947 (and up home we say 'Woostah'). To my knowledge he's never held elected office and he's very much a man of the 21st century. His early pieces, 'Grand Pianola Music', 'Harmonium' and 'Shaker Loops' positioned him as our most performed living American composer. Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his cantata 'On the Transmigration of Souls', written for the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the 9/11 attacks. He has long left behind the label minimalist composer as his own voice has taken over, and his works enter the mainstream.

Doctor Atomic is Adams's third opera. The first, 'Nixon in China', attracted attention not just for its subject matter but also for Alice Goodman's biting libretto and the inventive staging of Peter Sellars. The Adams-Goodman-Sellars collaboration continued with 'The Death of Klinghoffer'. This opera is the subject of a recent (and brilliant) film by Penny Woolcock, who has directed Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan.

The task of setting the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb to music was the suggestion of Pamela Rosenberg, then General Director of the San Francisco Opera. Adams long ago earned the dubious title of "King of the CNN Operas". The characters you meet in his operas are well remembered by many,
and they often turned up in the papers or the evening news. What has always impressed me about Adams's operas is his insistence on the humanity of all of his characters. You may not like his politics, but Richard Nixon was presented with the dignity due the President of the United States. 'The Death of Klinghoffer' remains very controversial not only for the horrible death of the title character but for the humanity with which Goodman and Adams depicted the Palestinian hijackers. Adams and Sellars avoid caricature in 'Doctor Atomic.' Sellars ads verses of John Dunne, Muriel Rukeyser and the Bhagavad-Gita to his libretto, since these are poets and works known to jhave been dear to Oppenheimer.

Central to this opera is the relationship between Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty. Imagine the conflict, creating something whose sole purpose is destruction on a massive scale. What does the do to the inventor? To his marriage and his loved ones? What about those who support the invention and argue that its necessary for the end of war and the safety of the world? The engine of Adams's music will tell the story of these characters in an opera that will I'm sure leave you impressed, and moved.

John Adams's new memoir 'Hallelujah Junction' is a good read.
His web site is

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Donald Rosenberg and The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Donald Rosenberg is the highly gifted music /arts critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He's also the author of a recent history of The Cleveland Orchestra ("The Cleveland Orchestra: Second to None") that is beautifully written and a jolly good read. I'm not a regular reader of the Plain Dealer, nor of Don's pieces, but I know good writing when I read it and Don is a good writer. I'm not aware of anyone who questions his knowledge of music or professional integrity in any way.

The scandal broke late last week that Rosenberg will no longer be allowed to review
concerts by The Cleveland Orchestra. He has for years been critical of Franz Welser-Most, TCO's music director, and somebody somewhere, decided enough was enough. It apparently never occurred to those involved that Welser-Most, seasoned opera conductor in Europe he may be, has a ways to go before he can fit comfortably into the shoes of George Szell, Lorin Maazel or Christoph von Dohnanyi and Severance Hall. FWM, a good looking blond, has had his Cleveland contract extended through 2018. I'm not aware that even Toscanini was offered such terms by General Sarnoff at RCA for the NBC Symphony sixty years ago!

(I interviewed Franz Welser-Most in Cleveland a few years ago. He was highly intelligent, an enjoyable conversationalist and charming. A nice, unaffected man with a healthy sense of self worth. I've admired his latest recording, the Bruckner 8 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. I've only heard him once in Cleveland, conducting Verdi's "Don Carlo".)

The fact remains that a highly respected arts journalist has been removed by a well respected newspaper from the only art beat in the area that matters. My apologies to the worthy opera and chamber music in Cleveland, but they lack the international reputation of The Cleveland Orchestra. Rosenberg has been accused of a lack of journalistic objectivity by some, and his reviews have been admired by others. The consensus is that Franz Welser-Most can't get a break from Rosenberg and by extension the Plain Dealer, and he's meant to be in Cleveland for the next ten years. Conductors in America are no longer deities. In fact, George Szell may have been the last one, and he died in 1970. Rosenberg's criticisms are much less rabid then those of Virgil Thomson, or Olin Downes or Chicago's Claudia Cassidy who drove one fine conductor, Jean Martinon, out of town. (Go find out more about these critics. Go read Thomson's memoir, Virgil Thomson by Virgil Thomson).
There's more available to us. good or bad you can hear La Scala, the Berlin Philharmonic or any of America's great orchestras, live in real time with a click at our desk. There's room now more than ever for an intelligent and probing response to all of these performances. Rosenberg's demotion is a tragedy. Its embarrassing for all concerned, except Don Rosenberg himself. The Plain Dealer or whoever made this decision has made themselves look petulant and childish, rather than encouraging its leading musical light to get on with it....better. The Cleveland Orchestra is a great orchestra deserving great, intelligent press and someone has just kicked an astute critic down the front stairs of Severance Hall. For shame.

To know more, go to and search Donald Rosenberg.
The story broke on Tim Smith's blog at the Baltimore Sun.
This will also be discussed on NPR's All Things Considered.
Check out that program's archive at

Friday, September 05, 2008


Recently I read of a European based production of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro".
In Act II the director has Cherubino, the lovesick page boy, sniff a pair of Countess Almaviva's underpants. I wish I could say this kind of nonsense was new, but it's old, its real old, and it's getting older.

First problem: There is no music in this opera that would support such a vulgar and ridiculous gesture

Second problem: As titillating as it might be, and as voyeuristic as we all may be, it remains a gross thing to do and makes the audience uncomfortable.

Third and fatal problem: It robs the Countess of her dignity. Cherubino could almost be forgiven or understood, since he's meant to be a horny page boy where hormones overtake decency.

But the point of this mini-rant: every character on the stage is entitled to their dignity. Even the evil ones: Klytamnestra is still the Queen of Mycanae, not a ruined harridan who wants to kill her children (she wants to avenge the daughter her husband killed)
Baron Ochs is supposed to have horseshit stuck to his boots, but he is still a
nobleman. He's capable of all the dainty gestures expected of a man of his class in 1750's Vienna. Bardolfo and Pistola, Sir John Falstaff's slimy servants, refuse to insult a lady, but would probably filch her purse behind her back.

Just as in music every note has the right to live, so every character's self worth and self understanding,-- place!-must be understood by the audience. Every thief has his dignity. So does every monarch, priestess, soldier and serving girl.
Otherwise nobody would be moved when they go to the opera. It would just be noise.

So look, sniff the underpants in private, okay? Leave poor Mozart and his audiences alone....

Monday, August 04, 2008


I've been reading the memoirs of the German bass Hans Hotter (1908-2003)
called, conveniently, Hans Hotter by Hans Hotter (translated by Donald Arthur, published in 2006 by Northeaster University Press. The original title is 'Die Mai ward wir gegonen'-May was kind to me, a line from Schubert's Winterreise)

Hotter, in addition to telling us about his personal life and professional travels, thankfully offers some insight into the performance of lieder. On paper he's a secondary source. Seek out his recordings if you want to listen and hear the words and music from the oracles' mouth.

Here's an excerpt from pp. 236

"...a friend of Schubert's, the lawyer Dr. Leopold Sonnleithner, has passed down to us some hints from the great genius himself who created these "gruesome songs" (as he himself described Winterreise). In these hints, Schubert gives us what can certainly be regarded as authoritative answers...Schubert's friend reports, "I heard Schubert coach and accompany his songs more than a hundred times. He never tolerated violent expression in the performance of lieder. He always kept strictly in tempo except for those few passages where he himself specifically marked a tempo change in writing. The lieder singer should as a rule only relate the experiences and sensations of another person; he does not assume the role of the person whose feelings he is describing. Poet, composer, and singer must approach the song lyrically and not dramatically. Particularly in the case of Schubert's true expression, the most profound sensitivity has already been placed in the melody a such and is splendidly enhanced by the composer."

CP: Sing what's on the page. Nothing more and noting less.

So there.

I recommend this book and any of Hotter's recordings to anyone interested in learning to make music drama. Absent that, they are completely enjoyable for their own sake.

Friday, August 01, 2008


I was thinking of the Columbus Symphony today, in anticipation of the Musicians of the Columbus Symphony concert set for tomorrow night at Veteran's Auditorium. The OSU Marching Band will be there, which is as savvy a piece of marketing and promotion as I've heard in a long while. They are, of course, regular participants in the CSO Summer Seasons.

I attended last Saturday's concert, conducted by Alessandro Siciliani. It was great. Crowded house, with lots of gutsy, passionate music making coming from the stage. In the intermission, I chatted with one of the CSO board members. I wondered if he felt like he was wading into enemy territory. (I didn't ask him that)
This gentleman has been a big supporter of the arts in Columbus for many years, and I'm sure there's no way he'd want to see the CSO fold. I didn't see any other board members there, but it was crowed and I don't know many of them, so for all I know the entire board could have been there. Good for them.

Wouldn't it be nice if tomorrow night the CSO Musicians, Mr. Hirokami, Mr. Beadle and all the board members in attendance could take a bow at the end of the evening, together, and in so doing signal and end to vituperation and who lives where and who cares and further signal a willingness to find some way to keep the band playing, period.

There are good and devoted people on both "sides" of this issue. Come out and take a bow. Music can do that much.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Musicians of the Columbus Symphony
Alessandro Siciliani, conductor
Saturday July 26 08
Veteran's Memorial Auditorium

There was already a good buzz in the hall with the downstairs seating pretty crowded when Siciliani came out to conduct this concert by the Musicians of the Columbus Symphony. Then the audience roared and leaped to their collective feet. What followed was a high octane, terrific romp through Verdi and Rossini overtures leading to a majestic reading of Finlandia. I imagine there was little or no rehearsal.
Given the emotion of the evening, its worth saying again that the band played beautifully.
One audience member remarked to me, well these overtures are like Pops pieces and I said try playing them. The evening ended with Dvorak's 4th symphony. It danced, as did the overtures. I'd like to acknowledge the beautiful playing by David Thomas, clarinet, Steve Secan, oboe, Randall Herster, flute...hell by everybody.
And say what you will, the paying public still loves Siciliani
and he clearly still loves these musicians.

Well, we've had several evenings of great music. This shows the best of our local performing arts community and a strong response from its many supporters. With everyone working at their best, maybe people can stop giving each other the proverbial finger and save this orchestra, restore these artists to their jobs and get serious about a quality of life issue for the capital city.

Friday, May 16, 2008


I seem to be getting grouchier than ever. I don't know if its the weather, the diet or just what, but the debacle at the Columbus symphony isn't helping my mood. Today it was reported that the Greater Columbus Arts Council is withdrawing funding, a quarter of a mill plus for the orchestra's 2008-2009 because the season has effectively been cancelled. Now you can't blame GCAC for this. They can't hold up monies that can go to other worthy organizations. I do wonder why they have never spoken publicly to encourage the orchestra's pooh bahs to either address the problems, sell tickets and get going or get out. Why hasn't GCAC said anything about anything. I sent 'em an e mail to this effect his morning. Politer in tone than I am now. But you and I both know that if there's any reply at all it will be along the "It's not our job " lines. My idea of arts advocacy is at odds with those in authority. Maybe they need to become as grouchy s I am.

Monday, May 12, 2008


...that's how I felt this past weekend as the Columbus Symphony played their last scheduled Classical Series concerts of the season, which will probably turn out to be their last concerts ever.
(Yes, yes we have Yo-Yo Ma en gala later this week, and a Pops
program with Marvin Hamlisch on May 31st. I'm sorry. Strike me dead if you want, but I don't want the last CSO concerts EVER to feature Marvin Hamlisch. God bless him)

The fiscal crisis at the Columbus Symphony is selling newspapers and keeping the blogs and websites humming.
The Columbus Dispatch has printed not one but two editorials telling the musicians (the product-thank you very much)to buck up and take all the pay cuts, all of the lost weeks and really everything the board can dish out to diminish the orchestra in size and quality. Stop whining and get over it.
The musicians take another view: where's the strategic plan? Where are the fundraising efforts? There's plenty of emotion from the public but how about from civic officials? The board will only negotiate further if the musicians accept horrendous cuts. The musicians will only negotiate further if these cuts are addressed. The board stance I find to be icy and patronizing. Very much the Esterhazy, use the servants entrance model. As stewards of a fifty seven year old civic organization, they clearly do not want the present Columbus symphony to succeed. Both sides vilify the other in the press. What's needed is a Dad or a playground monitor to knock some heads and get both sides talking. One has to wonder too, if CAPA , owners of the Ohio Theater wouldn't be just as content to let the CSO fail and fill the theatres with orchestra road shows. There it is folks: all music and all musicians are expendable and interchangeable.

If the board had any plan t fund raise or to improve this situation in any way, outside of firing half the orchestra they haven't made it known, it hasn't been reported or my fat ass has been under a very large rock. All they've said is, the musicians must accept these cuts. Period. If they don't, we have nothing to say to them.
Nor do they have anything we want to hear (including music, so it would seem)
Ah! Remember music? This past weekend, Beethoven, Schumann and Mendelssohn rang out splendidly. Will this-or Marvin Hamlisch-really be the end?

Look at these web sites:

Friday, May 02, 2008


SARAH CALDWELL, FIRST LADY OF OPERA by Daniel Kessler. Published June 30, 2008

Anyone wanting to know more about the art of stagecraft in opera should know these names. Google, Shmoogle or whatever but find their books and read: Stanislavsky, Wieland Wagner, Kroll Opera, Walter Felsenstein and Sarah Caldwell. They are all dead.

Today, I thrill to the work of Nic Muni, Stephen Wadsworth, Jack O'Brien, and Francesca Zambello. Peter Sellars is often fascinating but I don't always buy it. Sometimes its more about Peter than anything else (And lose the stupid haircut and the shmatte. It was cute in 1985 but most of us have moved on!)
All of them read scores. All go to the music and integrate music with text, and from this they prepare stagings.

A talented young friend who hopes for a career in opera reminded me yesterday of something I said at a rehearsal last year. I responded to another singer who said "Opera is a dying art." To which my friend quotes me as saying "Opera is primed for a revolution." I think we're in the midst of it now, a good one.

I grew up on Sarah Caldwell's productions of opera in the 1970s. Sarah died in 2006.. She had the cover of Time magazine (November 10, 1975) and was the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan. Sarah's genius was not for conducting, not so much for stage direction, though her ideas were witty, crowd pleasing and always bound to the music. They came from the score. She read the score. Sarah's genius was surviving as long as she did-the company was "in business" from 1959 to 1990, scoring last minute funds, often in bags of singles at the last minute to get the curtain up, and in assembling gifted people around her who could be relied upon to produce exciting opera.

The singers of course, Beverly Sills, Donald Gramm, John Alexander, Shirley Verrett, Jon Vickers, John Reardon, James McCracken among them.

Her comprimario artists were extraordinary. They were first class musicians and actors. Gimi Beni, James Billings, Richard Crist, Eunice Alberts, Jan Curtis and Ron Hedlund are a few who come to mind immediately. Her sets and costumes were designed with great taste and style by Helen Pond and Herbert Senn. These two never saw a performance space they couldn't conquer. For years, Sarah didn't have a theater. She produced opera in an indoor skating rink, the gym at Tuft's University, various porno houses scattered through Boston's combat zone, and a cyclorama building. The roof may have leaked and there was never a pit but the shows went on.

Was she the first to approach opera as theater? Did the revolution in opera begin with her? No, but she continued it. Sarah told me that HER great inspiration was the German director Walter Felsenstein (1901-1975). He was stuck in East Berlin for most of his career and his work was almost never seen in the West. In the 70s Sarah brought him to Boston for some lectures and he brought with him a number of his productions on film: LEONORE, BLUEBEARD and I think CARMEN.

All of these films have just been released on DVD. Go find them. Felsenstein had a state run theater with a limitless budget and cast good voices in very interesting bodies and developed strong stage personalities in his performers. I don't remember disliking his shows musically, and I remember wanting to see each film again, immediately. He would rehearse for months at a time, until he was satisfied. I'm not saying that's the way to do it. Sarah, for all her touted theatricality, was known to nod off during a 3 a.m. rehearsal. If you added up the amount of hours spent preparing Norma or Der Rosenkavalier in Boston I'll bet it would be less than any where else. Certainly less than East Berlin.

Now, Felstenstin never had a voice that I heard in his company of the Callas-Sutherland-Corelli-Price-Tebaldi category. These great stars didn't need Felsenstein and he didn't need them. The public didn't tire of these great voices, and if they threw in an onstage gesture once in a while, great. Their main accomplishments were vocal and musical. (And what voices!) Beverly Sills was a stage animal and a singing actress to her fingertips so I put her in her own category.

Sarah was the heir to Callas in my opinion. Same with Jon Vickers. So for Felsenstein the opera was less about voices, and I believe he put the drama before the music. Interestingly, as far as I know Felsenstein did little "singer's opera.' No bel canto: no Lucia, no Rigoletto, no Tosca.

Who before Felsenstein? Wieland Wagner was shaking it up at Bayreuth in his grandfather's opera house. With minimal sets-there was no money after WWII-Wieland Wagner used the music and the text to present the characters, just as Wagner with his talk of gesamtkunstwrk had intended.

I would love to have been in Berlin in the 1920s for the productions of the Kroll Opera. Otto Klemperer was in charge there. His productions were influenced by Gordon Craig, who was the first I know about to design abstract sets, using shapes, color and lights. Thus a tree was not always a tree, and audiences were expected to use their imaginations. They were given permission to enter into the drama with the music. It could be any kind of a tree you liked. And really, what does the music tell you? What do the rests tell you? The keys? And above all the texts. Now, very few opera libretti survive as great literature. But the words are what the composers strive to illuminate and illustrate with music. So for crying out loud, study your texts ! And the historical context in which the opera was written. There are clues everywhere that the music at the last will fill in for you. Meanwhile, go find Mr. Kessler's book about Sarah Caldwell. She was crazy, irresponsible, often brilliant and one never said "Never" to her. The paychecks bounced their way down the Charles river, but when she got the curtain up, it could be enthralling.

Monday, April 21, 2008


If you want to have your heart and your guts ripped out
and at the same time read some superb writing, go read
Knockemstiff, a collection of short stories by Donald Ray Pollock.
Mr.Pollock assures us these are fictional. The stories are set in
and around the real town of Knockemstiff, Ohio. Mr. Pollock also assures us that he grew up in Lnockemstiff
and that his parents and neighbors are all good people who would do anything to help someone in need.
I' m sure that's true and I'm relieved to hear it. Comparisons have been made to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg Ohio.
Forget it. This is brutally original. There is no love, no empathy, no pity and no whining to be found in any of these stories. Pollock writes the way a digital camera operates-with brutal honesty and clarity. His voice rings completely true.
You won't have read stories anything like these before, not from Poe, not from Hemingway, not from Shirley Jackson. You should put the book down and take a break every few pages. I tried to, I needed to come up for air. But I couldn't. I always had to peek ahead to the opening paragraph of the next story, and I was hooked all over again. It's not a long book and it doesn't need to be. There's no padding here.
This supremely gifted writer has a novel ready too. I can't wait. I may need to rest up to read it, but I can't wait. Don't miss Knockemstiff.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


My doctoral paper
Edward Downes, A Life in Music and the Media
may be read on line:

Type my name into the search engine.

Thanks to my beloved faculty committee for their patience and brainpower:

Karen Peeler
Alan Woods
Mary Tarantino
Patrick Woliver

Thanks to Edward's friends for their help

Martha Lattimore, Father M. Owen Lee, Speight Jenkins, Martin Bernheimer

Thanks to all of you who asked over the years "How's it going with the doctorate?"

It's done.

Thanks most of all to Edward!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

GEORGE JELLINEK: BUY THIS BOOK (do yourself a favor)

George Jellinek was affiliated with WQXR in New York for many years. His nationally syndicated program The Vocal Scene ran for over thirty years. I first heard Ponselle, Ruffo, Caruso, Lisitsian and many other great names on George's programs. Now he has written a memoir, "My Road to Radio and The Vocal Scene".
Do yourselves a favor and buy this book.
For me, George has always been the role model of intelligence and decency in music broadcasting.
I first met George on my Met Quiz debut (!) back in 1985.
He was already legendary to those of us who loved music and great singing.
I was selling records at Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue.
George was kind, friendly and altogether welcoming to me on that day and on any day I was privileged to be with him.
(We are hardly close friends. I don't flatter myself)
I don't think I ever heard the man say a derogatory word.
His new book is filled with warm reminiscences of may people
whose singing you have loved and I have loved.
If you want gossip of schlock criticisms this book is not for you.
Otherwise grad it.
Bravo, George!


I posted the above on the opera-l, site some days ago.
It was passed on to Geroge Jellinek who e mailed me as follows:

A dear friend called my attention to your lovely tribute. I am not in good health,
but your kind words brought back great memories and much consolation. Of course I remember you form the Quiz and other writings,
and consider you a DEAR FRIEND...

The caps are his.

So there!
But the book and say a prayer for George's health.

Monday, March 17, 2008

That's DOCTOR Big Butt, to you!!

Yesterday at Ohio State's winter commencement I officially became a DMA-doctor of Musical Arts. This after a few yeas of fun, some interesting times, help from good people and a bureaucracy that would be Orwellian if not in the end, so funny. In short, I rocked. So did a lot of people. The bureaucracy did not.

Did I march or walk or skate or what have you? I did not.
A fall on the ice last week dislocated my shoulder and has me reaching for the milk chocolate Eater eggs and jelly beans with my right hand.
In fact I'm reaching myself right back to Optifast. But this time I'll be drinking those shakes as a DOCTOR!
People ask me "What are you going to do with this degree?" Its a perfectly sensible question but it surprised me and the answer is I haven't any idea. Music therapy would require yet ANOTHER degree-dear Christ.
The DMA does me no good at WOSU. They have hit men looking for me here.
A classical music version of Laugh-In? Maybe. We'll see.

Still I guess its fun being a doctor, though its not a title I suppose I'll ever use.
The best part was finishing the Edward Downes memoir that became the dissertation.

Gotta go ice my shoulder.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


For people interested in learning more about the current situation with the Columbus symphony, I urge you to visit their website and download the document
The Path to Financial and Future Growth.

Go to

You should also check out a new blog/website begin by a young musician at Ohio State, Mathew Brahm.

Mr. Brahms is putting a lot of effort into his-go look.
One thing that really saddened me was a comment by a CSO member, a fantastic musician, who said he feared repercussions if he commented on his own blog.
Ridiculous. This is a prime stakeholder and his opinions are important.
I hope this unhappy situation can at least be discussed constructively by both "sides" and their friends, all of whom have the same goal: supporting a world class orchestra in Columbus.

For myself, I don't envy artists or management. Good guys all. Lousy situation.
It was great being in the Ohio Theater Saturday night to hear the CSO w. Hirokami blow the roof off the place with Beethoven's 7th, the Vaughan Williams Fantasia and Wetherbee's elegant reading of the Korngold violin concerto.
This was first class music making. The program was held almost 20 minutes to accommodate a crowded box office with walk in business.
It was a great night. They can all be great nights! The talent is not in question, nor the willingness of a large public to turn out and applaud, and applaud, and applaud.